African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

Welcome to African Honeyguides

How a mutualism evolves: learning, coevolution, and their ecosystem consequences in human-honeyguide interactions.

African Honeyguide

Honeyguides are wild birds, not tame. This male Greater Honeyguide, held by honey-hunter Orlando Yassene, has been briefly captured for research.

We study a remarkable mutualism: the foraging partnership between an African bird species, the greater honeyguide, and human honey-hunters whom it guides to bees’ nests. Honeyguides know where bees’ nests are located and like to eat beeswax; humans know how to subdue the bees using fire, and open the nest using axes. By working together, the two species can locate the bees, overcome the bees’ defences and gain access to the nest, thus providing beeswax for the honeyguides and honey for the humans. This specialised relationship is an extremely rare example of animal-human cooperation that has evolved through natural selection.

Why study honeyguides? Honeyguide-human interactions give us a wonderful opportunity to study mutualisms in nature. This is because local human and honeyguide populations vary strikingly in whether and how they cooperate and communicate, and because we can readily manipulate these interactions experimentally to understand how the mutualism functions.

Who are we? We are a team of researchers working in close cooperation with rural honey-hunting communities, particularly in the Niassa Special Reserve in northern Mozambique, where our project is known locally as ‘Projecto Sego’ (Project Honeyguide). Our research team is based jointly at the University of Cambridge in the UK and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and we collaborate widely with researchers elsewhere. In Mozambique, our research is hosted by the Mariri Environmental Centre run by the Niassa Carnivore Project. We are funded by the European Research Council (Consolidator Grant 725185 to Claire Spottiswoode).

What are we studying? The overall aim of our research is to understand the ecology, evolution and conservation implications of the honeyguide-human relationship, as a window into the origin and maintenance of mutually beneficial interactions between species (mutualisms). Our work builds on pioneering research in Kenya by Dr Hussein Isack in the 1980s, who first demonstrated scientifically how the mutualism functions. Now, in the Niassa Reserve, and at other locations in south-eastern Africa, we are asking: is learning involved in maintaining a geographical mosaic of honeyguide adaptation to different human cultures? How does reciprocal communication between humans and honeyguides mediate their interactions? How does the mutualism influence the ecosystems in which it operates, owing to its influence on bees, trees, fire, and human communities? What happens to each party and their ecosystems when the mutualism breaks down, and how quickly can a cooperative culture be re-ignited following its loss? In so doing we are testing for the first time the hypothesis that reciprocal learning can give rise to matching cultural traits between interacting species.

How can you help us? If you have seen or heard a Greater Honeyguide anywhere in Africa, and whether or not it guided you, please tell us about it! This will help us in our research. Please visit our citizen science project at Honeyguiding.me for more information and to submit a sighting.

Why does this matter? Understanding the role of behavioural adaptations such as learning is crucial to explain how and why the outcome of species interactions varies in space and time, and to predict how they will respond to a rapidly changing world. This is relevant to conservation, because mutualisms can have wide reach in shaping ecological communities. The honeyguide-human relationship is currently dwindling throughout Africa, and before it fades away, we need to understand this ancient part of our own species’ evolutionary history in those few places where it still thrives. 

How human-honeyguide cooperation works:

Please click on an image to walk through a honey-hunt:

Information on honeyguides as brood parasites

Need information on honeyguides as brood parasites?

News

New collaborative paper on honeyguide-human cooperation in Kenya

In a new paper in Frontiers in Conservation Science in collaboration with Isa Gedi, we report on the honey-hunting culture with greater honeyguides of the Awer people in Kenya. Awer honey-hunters depend on wild honey as a source of income, and readily seek the cooperation of honeyguides. To attract honeyguides, they whistle on the shell of a Giant African Land Snail. We thank the interviewees for sharing their honey-hunting culture with us.

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Laltaika awarded a Distinction for his MSc dissertation

Warmest congratulations to Eliupendo Laltaika, whose MSc research dissertation “Understanding the mutualistic interaction between greater honeyguides and four co-existing human cultures in northern Tanzania” was awarded with Distinction. Laltaika will graduate with an MSc in Conservation Biology from the University of Cape Town in December, and will rejoin the Honeyguide Research Project team as a PhD student from 2022. The image shows Laltaika interviewing a Ndorobo honey-hunter in September 2020, as part of his research on the honey-hunting cultures of Maasai, Sonjo, Hadzabe and Ndorobo communities in Tanzania.

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Honours students Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair complete projects

Congratulations to Rion Cuthill and Cameron Blair for successfully finalising their University of Cape Town Honours research dissertations hosted by our project. Rion’s thesis was titled ‘Where there is smoke, is there fire? The role of the honeyguide-human mutualism in African savannah fire ecology’ and supervised by Claire Spottiswoode and Sally Archibald. Cameron’s thesis was titled ‘Does the remarkable guiding call of the Greater Honeyguide develop from its begging call?’ and supervised Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal.

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Honeyguide flyer

Supported By:

EU ERC Logo

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 725185).