The Hadza And The Honeyguide

Indicator indicator, Greater Honeyguide
Greater Honeyguide. Photo: jroldenettel

The Greater Honeyguide, Indicator indicator, is a species of honeyguide bird with a distribution that includes East Africa.

As both its common name and scientific name suggest, the Greater Honeyguide is noted for its ability to guide people to honey.

The bird uses a very specific call to communicate with humans.

In fact the call is only used while communicating with humans. The bird sits high and calls, signalling “follow me”.

It then flies from tree to tree, stopping to wait for the people to catch up, guiding them towards a beehive. As the humans the bird is guiding get closer to the hive, it changes its call.

This remarkable co-operative relationship developed somewhere in pre-history and is still alive today.

The bird’s reward is that it gets to pick over the honeycomb that people leave behind. As well as eating the grubs and the honey, honeyguides are unusual amongst birds in that they can digest wax.

“It’s the most developed, co-evolved, mutually helpful relationship between any mammal and any bird.” Richard Wrangham, Anthropologist and author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

The Hadza and Honey

The Hadza love honey and will go to great lengths to get it, including free-climbing baobab trees and raiding the nests of African bees. Honey is a significant and important part of their diet.

Hadza up a baobab tree, collecting honey and honeycomb
Hadza men at height in a baobab tree, collecting honey. Still from documentary ‘By The Light Of A Million Fires’.

The Hadza use a uniquely human ability – the ability to make fire – to create smoke to quell the bees. But before they get to this stage of the process they use the uniquely co-operative relationship with the honeyguide to find the hive.

It is not a relationship that is exclusive to the Hadza. Other peoples in this part of East Africa such as the Masai have also taken advantage of this relationship.

The Hadza, like others, use special whistles to attract a honeyguide.

“The Hadza have this really, really intimate relationship with the honeyguide, in terms of what it’s saying and they’ll whistle a certain way to attract it. It’s very, very special.” Daudi Peterson, Safari Guide.

To learn more about the Hadza and the honeyguide, watch the following clip from the forthcoming documentary film about the Hadza, By The Light Of A Million Fires:


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Paul Kirtley is Founder and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog. He is the author of Wilderness Axe Skills and Campcraft, as well as having contributed to several other books. Paul has been involved in teaching bushcraft since 2003. He is also a Canoe Leader, British Canoeing Level 3 Canoe Coach and UK Summer Mountain Leader.

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