The Greater Honeyguide: Exploiting its Way to a Sweet, Sweet Life

The Greater Honeyguide (indicator indicator) is a bird that stands out among Southern Africa’s bird population. It doesn’t stand out because it’s particularly pretty. In fact, some might say it borders on LBJ status. Only the male Greater Honeyguide is saved from this fate and then only by its bright pink bill. This overtly feminine bill is one of the many things in their lives that cause them much embarrassment. But they have ways of compensating.

The Honeyguide gets its name from its ability to lead specially selected animals to beehives. The Greater Honeyguide is really the only species which has been known to lead humans to beehives. The Scaly-throated Honeyguide has been credited with this behaviour, but only because it spends a great deal of time quietly observing their cousins and trying to be like them. They’ll often cheat altogether and just follow a Greater Honeyguide. This is why the Greater Honeyguide is called the Greater Honeyguide… It is greater than other Honeyguides.

So how do they lead their chosen followers to beehives? They do it by dancing… badly.

They’ll see you coming along a path, and they’ll find a spot where you’re sure to see them (they’ll call to you too) and then they’ll do a little dance. They bob up and down and flick their wings and tail here and there. It’s pretty geeky actually. The bird will also make quite the racket to accompany their dance. The Honeyguide secretly loathes this act and is terribly embarrassed by it, but has found that this is the most polite way to attract someone’s attention. It is surely more advantageous that landing atop a passer-by’s head and tapping on their nose while screeching into their ear. Once the dance is over and the attention is won, the Honeyguide promptly switches to a graceful flight in the direction of the hive. This is an attempt to redeem their crushed ego, but the damage has been done. The follower usually laughs at the bird all the way to the hive. But if the laughter stops and the Honeyguide suspects that their follower has lost interest, they resort back to their silly dance.

The Honeyguide will also perform the same dance if they happen across a Honey Badger. However, Honey Badgers can’t see or hear particularly well, and thus they don’t have the same appreciation of musical theatre and comedic performance as humanity does. The truth is, Honeyguides often go completely unnoticed by the Badger. Even if the bird did manage to capture the Honey Badger’s attention, would it really expect the badger to concentrate on the task at hand and walk in a straight line to the hive without investigating everything along the way? All Honey Badgers suffer from terrible Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The Honey Guide would soon lose patience with the Badger and find himself physically and emotionally drained from all the embarrassing dancing he would have to do to maintain a Honey Badger’s limited attention.

So suppose the Honeyguide has successfully led you (and maybe even a Honey Badger) to a beehive. Why has he led you here? Is he being altruistic? Does he want to sit on your shoulder and sing to you, like a scene from a Disney cartoon, while you enjoy your sweet honey? The answer is ‘no’.

You’ve been led to a beehive because he longs to feverishly indulge himself in a practice called ‘cerophagy’. Simply put, the Greater Honeyguide is one of the only animals on Earth who can digest beeswax and he wants some now. He also wants the larvae and eggs inside the hive and he can’t break it open himself. Consider yourself used. How utterly noble of him.

Unlike you, Greater Honeyguides have exceptionally thick skin to protect them from bee stings and from insults directed at their dancing skills. But don’t be fooled. You’re expected to open the nest for them. And don’t think you can just walk away either. It’s believed that if you’re led to hive and you fail to open it for the Honeyguide, then next time he’ll lead you straight to a snake or a lion. Far from being superstition, this is fact. Honeyguides don’t take kindly when their efforts have been wasted. Retaliation is a possibility.

So you are forced to open the hive with your pocket-knife, suffering many stings in the process, so that the Honeyguide can feast on what he loves. Granted, he only likes the ‘yucky bits’, so you’re left with the honey all to yourself.

It is being said that Honeyguides are losing their guiding abilities, and with it their dance culture. This is largely due to the fact that humans don’t really need to go looking for honey in the bush anymore. We can buy it at Pick and Pay. So like so many other cultures in Africa, the Honeyguide culture is being eroded. The kids just don’t want to learn anymore. Why bother? Few Honeyguide children have taken up the honeyguiding tradition of their ancestors, preferring instead quick and easy ‘ready-meals’ like insects.

I own a book that encourages me to seek out the assistance of Honeyguides if I happen to be lost in the bush, because finding honey is a real ‘win’ in survival situations. But what if you’re in a survival situation and can only find one of these punk kid, fast-food eating Honeyguides who don’t know what honeyguiding is? They’ll think you’re chasing them through the bush while teasing them about their girly pink bills. The poor teenagers are awkward enough as it is, without being pursued through a thicket by a large, pocketknife wielding primate in Khakis yelling, ‘Take me to your honey! Take me to your honey!’

In ecology, the Honeyguide/ human relationship is termed ‘mutualism’. Mutual? Do you think the Honeyguide is thinking about you when he leads you to honey? No! He will find no moral objection in leading you for several hundred metres, down aardvark holes, across crocodile infested rivers to a beehive (whose owners will sting you, by the way) which lies in a tree occupied by an exceptionally angry leopard. Face it, you’re just his pawn. The Honeyguide’s motto is ‘me, me, me!’

Another case in point is their nesting behaviour, or lack of it. Honeyguides belong to a gang of birds called the ‘brood parasites’. To be initiated into this gang, a Honeyguide must shun the idea of nest building. Why waste time building nests and raising children when that time could be spent dancing badly and leading humans to leopards. Strangely, as an aspiring field guide, this reasoning is perfectly in line with my own…

So the Greater Honeyguide lays her eggs in someone else’s nest. But this can’t be just any old nest. She has a fondness for Little Bee-eaters and African Hoopoes. She’ll also target woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers, other bee-eaters, woodhoopoes and many others. The Greater Honeyguide chooses these particular species because these all happen to be the darlings of South Africa’s birdwatching scene. Is there a little jealousy there? Spite perhaps? Possibly.

Brood parasitism can be reasonably friendly. Whydahs are also brood parasites, but their chicks blissfully co-exist with their waxbill siblings. The whole family lives happily ever after. They picnic together, they bathe in the river, they sing to each other. The same cannot be said for the Greater Honeyguide.

The Greater Honeyguide is born to exploit everything. It’s usually born before its siblings, and has time to become aware of the strange little hook on the end of its bill. When you’re born altrical, every hour of life counts, so by the time its baby brothers and sisters are born, the Honeyguide is advanced enough to use this weapon to kill them all. They lose this bill hook after about two weeks. But if they kept it into adulthood, maybe they’d be more adept at opening beehives themselves? They would certainly save themselves a lot of trouble and embarrassment in the future. Just a thought.

The poor host mother is so thrilled with her new baby that she doesn’t notice that the others have mysteriously vanished. She lovingly feeds it and tells all her friends that her baby is the ‘most beautiful baby in the world’. Her friends don’t have the nerve to say it, but they know something isn’t quite right. Mummy Hoopoe, blinded by love, takes longer to catch on. But soon enough, she’s consulting the same friends, but this time she speaks in hushed tones, But little Henry Hoopoe is nearly three weeks old, surely he should have his crest by now?”

But Henry Hoopoe will not be abandoned by his mother, even when he’s a fully fledged Greater Honeyguide. Honeyguides will remember their parents and when the time comes to lay their own eggs, they’ll seek out someone just like ‘mom’.

Honeyguides are kudutastic. They’re a great reminder of how creative our natural world can be. They’re so successful because of their ability to exploit and manipulate the world around them. At what point did one pioneering Honeyguide see a human and think, ‘Hey, that big monkey thing has a stone tool in its hand… I bet they can help me with my little wax problem… I shall go and dance for them and see what happens…’. Honeyguides have used their intellect and their dancing skills to work their way up to a sweet, sweet life, and they deserve it. Love.

*Image is stolen from the Nashville Zoo website, until I finish painting my own Honeyguide picture…

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