Facts about Honeyguides

Honeyguides are tropical birds (mostly found in sub-Saharan Africa) that comprise the Indicatoridae family. There are 17 species of honeyguide, divided between four genera, of which the Indicator genus is easily the largest.

Honeyguides are small birds, from around 4.5 to 8 inches across the range, which places them in the same size categories as sparrows and thrushes. They are mostly nondescript in appearance, grey or brown above and lighter below, with white patches on the tail that can be seen in flight. A typical example is the greater honeyguide (indicator indicator) which is 7.5 inches long, brown above and white below, with white cheeks and a touch of yellow on the shoulders. Males have a black throat which the females lack. They inhabit dry open woodland in equatorial and southern Africa.

Honeyguides get their name from their habit of leading animals or people to the nests of bees, which they do for the mutual benefit of themselves and their “dupes”. Honeyguides feed primarily on bee and wasp eggs and larvae, and on other insects. Some species take adult bees and wasps on the wing. They have thick skins which make them impervious to stings. However, the purpose of “guiding” is to gain access to the beeswax found in a nest, which the honeyguide is uniquely able to digest due to the specific bacterial flora that it has in its digestive system

The greater honeyguide is known to guide African honey badgers (“ratels”) and men, attracting their attention by chattering loudly. It will then lead the way to a bees’ nest by flying a short distance and then perching on a tree branch as it waits for the badger or man to catch up, calling all the while. The trail can be up a quarter of a mile before the bees’ nest is reached, when the ratel or man can dig out the nest and take their share of the honey. When they have gone, the honeyguide is free to move in for the honeycomb and its beeswax.

Various superstitions have arisen in local societies about the right way to behave when a honeyguide leads one to a bees’ nest. One belief is that, if you fail to open a nest when led to it, the honeyguide will trick you next time by leading you towards a snake or a lion.

Another interesting fact about honeyguides is that they are brood parasitic. In other words, they behave like cuckoos in that they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which are fooled into raising honeyguide chicks rather than their own. Greater honeyguides tend to choose hole-nesting species as hosts, especially those that lay similar white eggs to their own. Barbets and woodpeckers are often chosen as hosts, but up to 40 species could be at risk.

Young honeyguides make sure that they will get their hosts’ full attention by killing any chicks that hatch alongside them. When they hatch, honeyguides have a sharp hook at the tip of the bill that is used to bite the hosts’ chicks to death. This hook drops off after about a week, but by that time the honeyguide chick has the only mouth left in the nest.

The behaviour of the adult honeyguide is clear evidence that such activities as guiding and wax-eating must be inherited. Honeyguide chicks would never be fed wax by their foster parents, who would also not be able to teach them how to guide.

For further reading:

AUSTIN, O. Birds of the world. Spring Books, 1988.