After yesterday’s post about honey badgers, I could not resist writing a companion post about the honey badger’s partner-in-crime, the famous honeyguide. I learned about this bird in my childhood, as did many of us, I think, but I thought the little guy was due for a reconsideration.

The greater honeyguide has a symbiotic relationship with the honey badger, who it uses to break into beehives. A honeyguide can remember the location of every beehive in a 150 sq. mile territory, and will lead a honey badger to its meal by calling and chattering as they go. Once the badger has demolished the hive, the honeyguide can dive in and feed on the scraps. It’s not just the badger who benefits from this behavior, though; African tribes have been led to hives by the honeyguide since time immemorial, making the honeyguide a partner in human survival as well. In fact, the symbiotic relationship goes back so far that the Boran people of Kenya don’t just follow the honeyguide — they can summon them, using a special high-pitched whistle. That’s right; the human and the honeyguide have been working together for so long they can actually communicate with each other.

Weirder still, there are some scientists who believe that the association with honey badgers is actually a side partnership from what actually began as a symbiotic relationship with early man, and not the other way around. After all, despite what this video suggests, the relationship between honey badgers and honeyguides has never been scientifically proven, whereas honeyguides figure into human beings’ earliest cosmologies.

The kind of 50’s-tastic nature documentary they don’t make anymore. I think the narrator is smoking a pipe between lines.

But more than the symbiosis, what fascinates me about the greater honeyguide is its diet. When the honey badger or the human leaves its reward of honeycomb, it might eat some larvae for protein and some honey for energy, but what it’s really after is the wax.

Waxes are special hydrocarbons made of the merging of an alcohol with a fatty acid. Plants secrete them from their leaves to prevent water loss through excessive respiration, essentially sealing themselves off from the air. Bees secrete it to build their homes, creating storage spaces for honey and for larvae. Bees must eat over 8 lbs of their own honey to secrete 1 lb of wax from special glands on their sides, making it a very expensive building material. It’s also completely indigestible, and therefore has no nutritional value to anything. Indigestible to everything, of course, except the honeyguide.

It turns out that honeyguides can live on nothing but wax for at least three months. There are stories of honeyguides entering rural churches to devour their devotional candles. If you or I or almost any other creature ate wax (as perhaps you did as a child, to see if those “peach” crayons lived up to their name), it would slip right through our intestinal tract unaltered. But somehow, the honeyguide has figured out how to survive on it. What’s more, science hasn’t discovered how. The going theory since the 50’s has been that the honeyguide’s guts were aided by a micrococcal bacteria and a yeast that can break down the stuff. More recent studies show that the bird might actually secrete its own signature enzyme capable of dissolving the fatty acids in its stomach. There are animals in the world that eat wood, and animals that live on bone, and bacteria that live on nothing but sulfuric acids. But the honeyguide is one of only a handful of birds in the world that can live on wax, something specifically rendered to be indigestible. It is in a niche all its own.

One more note on the honeyguide, lest you fall sway to the Disney flutes that seem to accompany its cheerful presence: it’s a brood parasite. Like a cuckoo, it builds no nest, laying its eggs in the nests of other species and hoping they’re not discovered. When the honeyguide chick hatches early, it uses its special, hooked juvenile beak to puncture the eggs around it and kill its nestmates. Humans tend to look down upon brood parasites with an indignation and disgust we can’t hide, but, in fact, the parasitism makes the greater honeyguide something even more special: it is wholly reliant on the other species around it. (Or, it is the biggest mooch in the animal kingdom.) As a chick, it relies on foster parents to raise it. As an adult, it relies on bees to make its food and larger animals to procure it. The honeyguide, that specialist of specialists, is entirely at the mercy of the forest ecosystem. As a species, you could call it a babe in the woods. You could call it a nosy go-between, advertising sweetness for its own material gain. Or you could call it a paragon of biodiversity, the divine slacker created by a world too rich to know how to spend it all, the precocious and spoiled child in a land of milk and honey.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Wax

  • Phyllis Klarmann

    Aw, the video doesn’t work for me. Link?

    How is it that we know the honeyguide/honey badger relationship wasn’t in place already when humans learned to communicate with it? You said there’s no evidence, but clearly there must be, if it’s acknowledged that the badger identifies its calls as a big fat arrow pointing it toward the next beehive?

    I suppose it could be coincidental, and that the badger has no effing clue what’s going on (for clearly, it seems the honeyguide does). But back to the question, how can we know for sure? The relationship might have been present, and our unpracticed eyes have never noticed. On what grounds do scientists hold that humans were in on the honeyguides’ antics first?

    (I have a bias for the badger – love ’em.)

    • quantumbiologist

      I think, in this case, “unproven by science” is shorthand for “haven’t studied it enough to make it conclusive.” And I think it’s more probable that the badger/honeyguide relationship existed first, too. But the alternate theory is anthropocentrically delicious. (Note to self: I should market children’s breakfast cereal.) The case for a honeyguide/human relationship is based largely on the theory that honey badgers wouldn’t NEED honeyguides to find hives, and therefore no symbiosis would have developed. But I don’t know. If you get nothing else from this post, it’s that honeyguides are still something of a mystery.

      The cute 50’s video I posted is here:

      While a more modern, shorter clip I couldn’t embed is here:

      • Phyllis Klarmann

        I’ve never heard of ’em before today, so in either case, I enjoyed it! If anything, we can propose they change the mascot of Honey Smacks to a badger.

        I would argue that the badger’s ability to find beehives without the honeyguide doesn’t suggest that a relationship doesn’t exist (if not mutualistic, it’s comensalist because the honeyguide needs a badger to crack the hives open).

        I’m sure humans could find the beehives just as well, and a symbiotic theory of humans and honeyguides has been suggested. Both relationships are fascinating – thanks for the link!

  • Apiarian musings « Obeying the inscrutable exhortations of my soul

    […] a nifty little bird called the honeyguide, which has evolved the commensal behavior of leading humans, honeybadgers, and other honey-loving critters to beehives. Once the human has taken the honey, the honeyguide then feasts on the leftover honeycomb and bee […]

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