Honeyguides lead people to honey, study finds


A new study has shown how Greater Honeyguide communicates with humans in order to help them locate bee colonies and subsequently honey and beeswax.

The research, published in Science, details the rare example of co-operation between humans and wild animals, and a potential instance of cultural co-evolution. University of California Los Angeles anthropologist Brian Wood and University of Cape Town ornithologist Claire Spottiswoode were lead authors.

"Our study demonstrates the bird's ability to learn distinct vocal signals that are traditionally used by different honey-hunting communities, expanding possibilities for mutually beneficial co-operation with people," Wood said.

Greater Honeyguide is a resident species in sub-Saharan Africa (Paul Watkins).

Spottiswoode added: "Honeyguides seem to know the landscape intimately, gathering knowledge about the location of bee nests, which they then share with people. People are eager for the bird's help."

The birds also benefit from locating the colonies as the species feeds primarily on bee eggs, larvae and pupae, waxworms and beeswax.

The study's findings build on research published in 2014 that showed the immense benefits of this relationship for the Hadza people. Honeyguides increased Hadza hunter-gatherers' rate of finding bee nests by 560% and led them to significantly higher-yielding nests than those found without honeyguides.

This previous research also found that 8-10% of the Hadza's yearly diet was acquired with the help of honeyguides.

Spottiswoode and Wood's study was done in collaboration with the Hadza in Tanzania, with whom Wood has been conducting research since 2004, and the Yao community of northern Mozambique. Their prior work in both communities documented differences in how each culture attracts honeyguides.

Among the Hadza, a honey-hunter announces a desire to partner with the bird by whistling. In Mozambique, Yao honey-hunters do so with a trilled "Brr! ..." followed by a guttural " ... hmm!"

Using mathematical models and audio playback experiments, the team studied these signals, their utility to people and their impacts on birds by experimentally exposing honeyguides in Tanzania and Mozambique to the same set of prerecorded sounds.

The honeyguides in Tanzania were over three times more likely to co-operate when hearing the calls of local Hadza people than the calls of 'foreign' Yao. Meanwhile, the honeyguides in Mozambique were almost twice as likely to co-operate when hearing the local Yao call, compared to the 'foreign' Hadza whistles.

The study proposes that differences in honeyguide-attracting signals are not arbitrary, but make practical sense.



Spottiswoode, C N, & Wood, B M. 2023. Culturally determined interspecies communication between humans and honeyguides. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.adh4129