Profiteers of the Busy Bee

Observations on the Honey Guides of Africa

Guinea Forest map

Map showing the distribution of two African honey guides, one (Indicator indicator) an inhabitant of the open grass country, or savanna, the other (Melichneutes robustus) restricted to the equatorial forest.

How well the honey guide is known and esteemed by the natives of the countries where it dwells may easily be imagined. By the Azande tribe of the northeastern Congo the bird is called turubwa, and I was told that before the arrival of Europeans an Azande chief would have cut off the ear of any man so stupid as to have killed a honey guide. Mr. Herbert Lang and I had many experiences with honey guides attracted by our caravans or hunting parties. It is the habit of the bird to locate one or more bee colonies and then wait for the passing of men, whose attention it attracts by a persistent chattering. At such times it is relatively tame and will alight in small trees only a few yards off. If a man wishes to learn where the hive is, he follows the bird, whistling occasionally to it.

Here I may quote an instance from my own notes. One afternoon in November, 1911, in a small wooded swamp near Faradje, a post in the northeastern corner of the Congo, we came upon a male bird, who at once started his chatter, and then flew off to some distance, returning shortly as though to assure himself that we were in earnest. We replied with low whistles, and following him through the tall grass and scrub, were led out on to higher ground. Now our feathered guide would fly noisily ahead about fifty yards until out of sight, perching on top of a bush and repeating the performance as soon as we came up. Presently another male bird joined him. We had gone about six hundred yards when both birds stopped in a tree too small to harbor bees in its trunk. Yet by their short aimless flights and repeated returns to the tree, the honey guides impressed upon us that this was the spot. The buzzing of passing bees now was heard and the insects were traced to a small hole in the ground close by. During these proceedings the birds allowed us to approach within ten or fifteen feet of them.

We prepared to make a fire, and our birds retired noiselessly for the time. A little later I saw them again, sitting with puffed-out breasts and open bills, tittering a low chwee-r-r, which I had not heard before. They seemed to be quarreling, and one soon chased his rival off at top speed.

With the aid of some burning grass two of my black helpers quickly had the hive unearthed, paying a penalty of only six stings. The comb contained no honey, only pollen and bee larvae. It was in a cavity previously occupied by termites. We placed some of the comb in the forks of a tree and went off to escape an impending shower. An hour or two later we found that the birds had returned to peck at the comb; and the following morning I watched them come silently, the one after the other, to seize a piece of the comb and fly off with it. Without crediting the birds with actual foresight or intelligence, I do not hesitate to say that it is for this reward that they have worked.

It is said that in sections where the negroes have artificial hives hanging in trees for the use of bees the honey guide makes no distinction and will lead to occupied hives established through man's agency as readily as to natural cavities housing wild bee colonies. This I believe, though I have not had occasion to verify it even among the Logo of the eastern Uelle District, who attract bees with hives made of reeds.

The assertion has also been made that the honey guide will sometimes lead a man up to a snake or a leopard, but this has been vigorously denied by experienced naturalists. A story far better founded is that of the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) following the honey guide. Major Stevenson-Hamilton [Animal Life in Africa, 1912; pp. 247-48] describes it as though he had often observed it himself. "You may be resting in the bush in the cool of the afternoon, or on some cloudy day, when your attention is arrested by the persistent and approaching chatter of one of these feathered spies. Presently the bird itself comes fluttering on to a branch some thirty yards distant, where it perches, flapping its wings, and displaying every sign of impatience. For a moment it is silent, and then a less familiar sound strikes the ear: a light sibilant hissing and chuckling, which at first you find yourself unable to identify. . . .

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