The call of the Honeyguide

The human desire for sweet food is ancient and the search for sweet foods is likely to have been a pastime of our most remote ancestors. In the distant past, long before refined sugar and sweeteners were available, the honey gathered from the hives of wild honeybees was the one of the few foods that provided a concentrated source of sugar. This ancient search for wild honey was recorded in prehistoric rock art such as that depicted in the cave painting below from near Valencia, Spain that is thought to represent a woman braving the stings of the bees. Rock art from across the Sahara, eastern, and Southern Africa indicates that wild honey has been collected in these regions for at least 20,000 years and today it still forms a part of the diets of many African people.

Woman gathering honey, watercolor copy by F. Benitez Mellado of a Mesolithic (c. 10,000/8000–c. 3000 bce) painting in the Cueva de la Arana, near Bicorp, Spain; in the Museum of Prehistory, Valencia, Spain.

In Africa, those hunting for wild honey have not been alone in their search as they are often joined by the Greater Honeyguide, a bird that also enjoys the fruits of the honeybees labour. The Greater Honeyguide has evolved a complex symbiotic relationship with humans leading people to wild beehives and in return receiving a share of the honeycomb.

The Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator), its scientific name deriving from its guiding behaviour, can be found across most of sub-Saharan Africa except for the jungles of central Africa and is one of several species of Honeyguide although it is the only one known to guide humans. These birds specialise in consuming bee larvae and wax, being one of the few birds that can digest beeswax. However, African bees often nest in inaccessible places and fortify the entrances to their hives making access difficult. The Honeyguide benefits from the help of people who can use smoke to pacify the bees and tools to break into these hives.

Male Greater Honeyguide.

The guiding behaviour of the Honeyguide was studied by Isack and Reyer (1989) during a three-year research study with the Boran people of Kenya in the 1980’s. The Boran are a pastoralist people traditionally living a nomadic lifestyle. They herd their cattle over areas of northern Kenya and regularly supplement their diets with wild honey collected from the bush. When out hunting for honey the Boran use a special whistle known in the Boran language as “Fuu-lido” that can be heard over a wide distance. If a Honeyguide answers the call it draws attention to itself by emitting a persistent double noted call sounding like “tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr” that is only used for the purpose of attracting the attention of humans, and at the same time moving impatiently from perch to perch. The bird will then briefly disappear and upon returning perch on a conspicuous branch. When approached the bird will fly off a short distance and perch again still calling, when the hunter nears it will fly to another perch, this continues until the site of the beehive is reached.

The first disappearance is thought to be due to the Honeyguide flying off to check on the location of the nearest hive and the Boran can estimate the distance to the hive by the time it takes the bird to return. It is thought that the bird remembers the location of all the hives within its territory leading people directly to whichever hive is the closest. Honeyguides have been observed inspecting the entrances to nests early in the morning when the bees were docile so as to keep track of the location of active hives in their area. Upon arrival at the hive the bird emits a special indication call and after several of these will perch quietly nearby or fly around the nest to another perch revealing the site of the nest. If the person being guided either fails to find the nest or pretends not to the bird may slip away quietly or begin leading the collector to the next closest hive.

Wild bee colonies in Kenya are often located in large trees, rock crevices and termite mounds and the majority of these were found to be inaccessible to the Honeyguide without the aid of human tools to open them and use of smoke to pacify the bees. In this study if was found that when out searching in unfamiliar areas the time taken for the Boran to find a hive without the aid of a Honeyguide was on average 8.9 hours and this was reduced to 3.6 hours with the help of a Honeyguide. However, the benefit to the people may be even greater than this as on many days without guiding no hive was found. After the collectors have extracted the honey, the Honeyguide feasts on pieces of honeycomb left behind. In many areas a piece of comb is left as a gift to the bird and there are stories telling that if the Honeyguide does not receive its reward next time it will lead you straight to a lion.

It has often been cited in both popular articles and standard texts on animal behaviour that this guiding behaviour also takes place between the Honeyguide and the Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis). This assertion has been refuted by Dean et al (1990) who lay out a range of evidence for this to be unlikely to be true and reporting that this behaviour has never been direct recorded in the wild. There is also the the apparent disappearance of guiding behaviour among Honeyguides living in areas where refined sugar is easily available and humans no longer venture out in search of wild honey. It has been proposed that the guiding behaviour is most likely to have developed solely with humans at some distant point in the past and it has been suggested that this behaviour co-evolved with our early hominin ancestors. It has now developed to such as degree that Greater Honeyguides are attracted to smoke and human homes and will enter gardens attempting to guide humans if beehives are close by. Sadly, there is evidence that this behaviour is dying out in areas where people are no longer interested in wild honey and within nature reserves from which hunter-gatherers are excluded.

The interactions between the Honeyguide and humans form a complex symbiotic relationship that has developed over the millennia, possibly as far back as our distant hominin ancestors. The cooperation and interspecies communication that has developed between is indicative of the substantial mutual benefit that both parties gained from this relationship. It is also indicative of the enduring importance of honey in the lives of the ancestors of the people of Africa.

As usual David Attenborough explains these things in the best way and the following clip is from Talking to Strangers a part of the The Trials of Life series originally broadcast in the UK in 1990.


Isack H A and Reyer H U. (1989) Honeyguides and Honey Gatherers: Interspecific Communication in a Symbiotic Relationship. Science. Vol. 243, No. 4896, pp. 1343-1346.

Dean W R J, Siegfried W R and MacDonald I A W. (1990) The Fallacy, Fact, and Fate of Guiding Behaviour in the Greater Honeyguide. Conservation Biology. Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 99-101.

[Image 1]. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[Image 2]. Safari Ecology.

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6 Responses to The call of the Honeyguide

  1. this is excellent! im so happy that i read this, and im so happy that youre going to be writing more. looking forward to all of it.


  2. Kamal says:

    Honey Guide…please offer me tips on ways to use honey in the near future.


  3. Alexander says:

    Fantastic! What a marvelous example of interspecies communication!


  4. Julie says:

    Honey Guide, I just made your tasty cakes and they are most excellent. Thank you and I look forward to all future articles and recipes. I too would like additional honey tips, please.


  5. Pingback: Honeyguides, fire, and human evolution. | The call of the Honeyguide

  6. gringojay says:

    Kalahari Bushman honey guide lore I just came across = (1961) vanDer Post’s “The heart of the hunter”, chapter 4 titled “Ratel & honey-diviner”. Penguine edition (1978) pg. 67 – 70 Dabe recounts the following.

    ” When … combs full …the bird would come calling for the ratel … look back to make sure … & repeat his call. The ratel would answer … with a soft whistling sound ….”

    “… the ratel [honey badger] was taking out the honey … the excited bird bubbling with small noises like water coming out of a fountain. … They … eat it up side by side … each choosing what he liked best.”

    ” … people of the early race the bird preferred to the ratel … [later] men took the best … left the … worst … when he saw … deceived he would tell the ratel …. For this … men … careful to … leave no spoor; otherwise the ratel would follow … & in the night bite off their testicles. …. I have heard my father speak many times of men … punished this way ….”


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