The Birds, the Bees, and the Middle Man

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July 5, 2018 by glenfoerd

(c) Audubon Society

Orlando Yassene, a member of the Yao culture, holds a wild Greater Honeyguide in northern Mozambique. The Yao form alliances with birds to scout out beehives. Photo: Claire Spottiswoode (c) Audubon Society

Humans have long relied on animals to help with tasks: horses transport, mules plow, dogs hunt. Animals, likewise, may be said to rely on humans for their own needs: synanthropic species such as raccoons, pigeons, and seagulls frequently benefit from a relationship with or proximity to humans.

Relationships where animals and humans cooperate of their own accord to achieve something of mutual benefit, however, are rarely seen. That’s what makes the Greater Honeyguide bird (Indicator indicator) so unique.

Native to the dry woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa, Greater Honeyguides spend their days as most birds do: seeking out their favorite foods. But it’s how the Greater Honeyguide does this that’s remarkable. In a practice likely dating back thousands of years, the Greater Honeyguide attracts humans in search of honey to bees’ nests it has located, allows the humans to open the nest & extract the honey, and then picks around the decimated hive for eggs, larvae, wax, and other treats.

What’s perhaps even more impressive is that humans in the region have learned how to call to the birds just as the birds call to them. The Boran and Yao peoples of East Africa have both developed unique calls to signal to birds that they are ready to hunt. Rather than wandering in hopes of a chance encounter with a Greater Honeyguide, the call attracts the bird, who in turn greatly increases the likelihood of a successful hunt.

Learn more about the fascinating relationship between Greater Honeyguides and honey hunting humans at the Audubon Society’s website. And don’t forget to join us at this year’s Philadelphia Honey Festival on September 7, 8, and 9!


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