Skip to content

Experts Find Evidence Of Honeyguide Birds And Honey Badgers Cooperating To Access Honeycombs 

Researchers speculate honeyguides switched to work with humans after learning guiding behavior from badgers.
Photo of a honeybadger and a honeyguide feeding on honeycombs. Researchers have found evidence of honeybadgers and honeyguides helping each other access honeycombs in Tanzania. SWNS.

Honey badgers form a “tag team” with birds to steal from bees, reveals a new study.

The honeyguide bird loves beeswax, but needs help breaking open the bees’ nests to get it.

Now researchers have discovered that the bird shows a honey badger the way to the nest.

The badger then rips it open and together they share the sweet rewards in a “Disneyesque” tale of two species cooperating.

Study lead author Dr. Jessica van der Wal, of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said: “While researching honeyguides, we have been guided to bees’ nests by honeyguide birds thousands of times, but none of us have ever seen a bird and a badger interact to find honey.

“It’s well-established that honeyguides lead humans to bees’ nests, but evidence for bird and badger cooperation in the literature is patchy – it tends to be old, second-hand accounts of someone saying what their friend saw. So we decided to ask the experts directly.”

For the first large-scale search for evidence of the interaction, a team of researchers from nine African countries, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town, conducted nearly 400 interviews with honey-hunters across the continent.

A honeyguide feeding on beeswax. Honeyguide birds, also known as Indicator, has been used for generations across communities of Africa to find bees’ nests. DOMINIC CRAM/SWNS.

People in the 11 communities surveyed for the study, published in the Journal of Zoology, have searched for wild honey for generations – including with the help of honeyguide birds.

Most communities surveyed were doubtful that honeyguide birds and honey badgers help each other access honey, and the majority (80 percent) had never seen the two species interact.

But the responses of three communities in Tanzania stood out, as many people said they’d seen honeyguide birds and honey badgers cooperating to get honey and beeswax from bees’ nests.

Sightings were most common amongst the Hadzabe honey-hunters, of which 61 percent said they had seen the interaction.

Co-author Dr. Brian Wood, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Hadzabe hunter-gatherers quietly move through the landscape while hunting animals with bows and arrows, so are poised to observe badgers and honeyguides interacting without disturbing them.

“Over half of the hunters reported witnessing these interactions, on a few rare occasions.”

The researchers reconstructed, step-by-step, what must happen for honeyguide birds and honey badgers to cooperate.

Some steps, such as the bird seeing and approaching the badger, are highly plausible, according to the research team.

Others, such as the honeyguide chattering to the badger, and the badger following it to a bees’ nest, remain unclear.

The team explained that badgers have poor hearing and bad eyesight, which isn’t ideal for following a chattering honeyguide bird.

They say perhaps only some Tanzanian populations of honey badgers have developed the skills and knowledge needed to cooperate with honeyguide birds, and they pass these skills down from one generation to the next.

The team said it’s also possible that badgers and birds do cooperate in more places in Africa, but simply haven’t been seen.

A photo depicting a honey badger feeding on honeycomb.  Experts speculate that some Tanzanian populations of honey badgers have developed skills and knowledge needed to cooperate with honeyguide birds. DOMINIC CRAM/SWNS

Study senior author Dr. Dominic Cram, of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, said: “The interaction is difficult to observe because of the confounding effect of human presence: observers can’t know for sure who the honeyguide bird is talking to – them or the badger.

“But we have to take these interviews at face value.

“Three communities report to have seen honeyguide birds and honey badgers interacting, and it’s probably no coincidence that they’re all in Tanzania.”

The greater honeyguide bird, Indicator, is well-known to communities across Africa, where it has been used for generations to find bees’ nests.

Wild honey is a high-energy food that can provide up to 20 percent of calorie intake – and the wax that hunters share or discard is a valuable food for the honeyguide.

Humans have learned how to read the calls and behavior of the honeyguides to find wild bees’ nests.

Cambridge’s Dr. Claire Spottiswoode, study joint senior author, said: “The honeyguides call to the humans, and the humans call back – it’s a kind of conversation as they move through the landscape towards the bees’ nests.”

She added: “Some have speculated that the guiding behavior of honeyguides might have evolved through interactions with honey badgers, but then the birds switched to working with humans when we came on the scene because of our superior skills in subduing bees and accessing bees’ nests.

“It’s an intriguing idea, but hard to test.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

Edited by Suparba Sil and Virginia Van Zandt

“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”

Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.

Check out our free email newsletters

Recommended from our partners