African Honeyguides

Research on a remarkable
human-animal relationship

New paper: Guides and cheats in the human-honeyguide mutualism

Nov 9, 2023

Greater Honeyguide

Our new paper investigating foraging strategies in greater honeyguides is out now, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

After guiding a honey-hunter to a bees’ nest, the honeyguide is gratefully rewarded with a piece of beeswax, which it eats. There is usually enough beeswax to feed many honeyguides, and we often observe up to ten birds feeding in turn. Nine of these birds didn’t help the honey-hunter, so why should they make the effort to locate and guide a honey-hunter, when they can simply wait for another bird to do so and scavenge a free meal? We wanted to answer this question, and improve our understanding of this type of ‘producer-scrounger’ system more generally, by studying the honeyguides of Niassa Special Reserve in Northern Mozambique.

We used a ringed population of honeyguides to ask whether honeyguides consistently guide or scrounge, which types of honeyguide adopt each tactic, and quantify the tactic pay-offs. Our results revealed that honeyguides flexibly switch between tactics in an opportunistic way. Larger honeyguides typically scrounged, likely because they were able to bully other birds to gain access to the beeswax. The smallest females almost never guided. We suspect this may be related to the genetic matrilines in this species, which influence body size. The smallest females are from the lineage that parasitizes ground-nesting species, and these females may therefore have been preoccupied with breeding during our fieldwork. This idea requires further research – so watch this space! We also found that guiding provided the biggest pay-offs, by increasing a honeyguide’s access to the best pieces of beeswax, and reducing the chances of it being deprived by a greedy honey badger.

Overall, the details of the honeyguide producer-scrounger system we uncovered are likely to strengthen the human-honeyguide mutualism, for two reasons. First, tactic-switching means that any honeyguide should be able to guide, and second, the greater pay-offs of guiding means that they should be incentivised to do so whenever the opportunity arises


Honey-hunting Research Network workshop

The Honey-hunting Research Network (coordinated by Jessica van der Wal) met in Cape Town for a very enjoyable week of analysing and comparing interview data from honey-hunting cultures across Africa, painting a picture of the human cultural variation relevant to honeyguides, and its uncertain future on a rapidly changing continent. Joining in person were Wiro-Bless Kamboe, Rochelle Mphetlhe, George M’manga, Sanele Nhlabatsi, Daniella Mhangwana, Celiwe Ngcamphalala, Claire Spottiswoode and Jessica van der Wal. Thank you to the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund for funding our get-together!

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New paper on human-honeyguide cooperation and communication

A new study from the Honeyguide Research Project shows that Greater Honeyguides learn the distinct calls that honey-hunters in different parts of Africa use to communicate with them, facilitating cooperation between species. Human honey-hunters signal to honeyguides using specialised calls that vary culturally across Africa. The new study shows using field experiments in Mozambique and Tanzania that honeyguides prefer the specialised calls of the local human culture they interact with, compared to those of a foreign culture. This implies that honeyguides can adjust to human cultural diversity, increasing the benefits of cooperation for both people and birds.

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