Honeyguide and Human Collaboration.

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a male greater honeyguide temporarily captured for research in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. Credit: Claire Spottiswoode.

Yao honey-hunter Orlando Yassene holds a male greater honeyguide temporarily captured for research in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique. Credit: Claire Spottiswoode.

By following honeyguides, a species of bird, people in Africa are able to locate bees’ nests to harvest honey. Research now reveals that humans use special calls to solicit the help of honeyguides and that honeyguides actively recruit appropriate human partners. This relationship is a rare example of cooperation between humans and free-living animals.


Honeyguides give a special call to attract people’s attention, then fly from tree to tree to indicate the direction of a bees’ nest. We humans are useful collaborators to honeyguides because of our ability to subdue stinging bees with smoke and chop open their nest, providing wax for the honeyguide and honey for ourselves.

Experiments carried out in the Mozambican bush now show that this unique human-animal relationship has an extra dimension: not only do honeyguides use calls to solicit human partners, but humans use specialised calls to recruit birds’ assistance. Research in the Niassa National Reserve reveals that by using specialised calls to communicate and cooperate with each other, people and wild birds can significantly increase their chances of locating vital sources of calorie-laden food.

In a paper (Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism) published in Science today (22 July 2016), evolutionary biologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town) and co-authors (conservationists Keith Begg and Dr Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project) reveal that honeyguides are able to respond adaptively to specialised signals given by people seeking their collaboration, resulting in two-way communication between humans and wild birds.

This reciprocal relationship plays out in the wild and occurs without any conventional kind of ‘training’ or coercion. “What’s remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years,” says Spottiswoode, a specialist in bird behavioural ecology in Africa.

The full story is at PhysOrg.


  1. rq says

    Like free-living pets that aren’t actually pets! Interspecies communication at its finest. Awesomeness.

  2. kestrel says

    That is just awesome. Very glad you posted this!

    I would not think of them as pets myself… maybe a symbiotic relationship? Just awesome no matter what you call it.

  3. rq says

    Okay, fine, not pets, bad word. :)
    But I love stories like these -- another facet of human interaction with nature. Also the diversity of communication that is available or can be developed, even with such different species.

    Although it does give a whole new meaning to the Latvian golden oldie The Seagulls Are Talking To Me Again.

  4. dakotagreasemonkey says

    I listened to Prairie public radio about these birds. It was amazing, because these birds respond to different human whistles, words and voice trills, depending on where in Africa the birds interact with people. I had to wait in the parking lot of the grocery store to finish listening to the story. Glad to have you post about them!

  5. mostlymarvelous says

    Yeah. There was a segment on this honey guide routine on a documentary I saw a year or so ago. Most important, and obvious, is the sharing honey aspect. Apparently the birds go a bit ‘deaf’ if someone calls them after having not shared the honey/comb product of an earlier expedition.

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