The Greater Honeyguide

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Mutualism is a form of symbiosis where two species assist each other in achieving greater benefits. Humans are in a constant state of mutualism with gut flora; without which we could not digest anything. We are also in a mutual relationship with larger animals such as dogs and other domesticated animals. A wild bird has struck such a relationship with humans as well: the Greater Honeyguide.

Photo of a honeyguide by Gisela Gerson Lohman-Braun
Photo of a honeyguide by Gisela Gerson Lohman-Braun

The Greater Honeyguide feeds on flying insects (like swarming termites), but is known for feeding on the contents of beehives. Specifically, they enjoy munching on bee eggs, larvae, pupae, and beeswax (being one of the only birds that can digest wax). But getting to these delicious treats is difficult. Most of the time it requires waiting until early morning when the bees are more lethargic or scavenging at hives already destroyed. On a rare occasion, however, it will call a human to its aid.

Bees swarming a hive Photo by Pokrajak
Bees swarming a hive
Photo by Pokrajak

Calls to attention start with fluttering near a human, shouting chattering notes as if to say “Hey you! Look at me!” Once it has the person’s attention, it flies a little ways towards a hive, only pausing to wait for a follower (continuing to call out all the while). When it finally reaches the hive, it signals to the human by spreading its tail-feathers, and launching to perch on a branch nearby.

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This all occurs in Eastern Africa around Ethiopia and Kenya, near the Borana Oromo tribes. And those peoples are the ones who take advantage of the bird. Their chances of finding honey increase by two-thirds when following honeyguides, so they’ve found tricks to encourage encounters. Fuulido is a style of whistling the Borana people have created to call for the honeyguide. When using fuulido whistling, they double the chances of finding a honeyguide!

Photo of Borana peoples from the collection of Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures
Photo of Borana peoples from the collection of Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding these birds. Do they guide other animals? Indigenous peoples claim they have seen honey badgers and baboons following them. How long have these birds helped their human counterparts? Some scholars claim the two species evolved since the days of early man, while others say it is a recent development. However it began, it remains an interesting interspecies relationship.

Music: 24 Etudes for Flute, Op.15 by Joachim Andersen performed by Paolo Dalmoro

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