Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Man's best friend, Or a bee's worst enemy? The Greater Honeyguide and Cooperation


The benefit to this blog topic is that it involves cooperation between a species of bird, the Greater Honeyguide, and HUMANS.  Therefore, the intro, a.k.a. the boring part, will be effectively cut in half, because I'm only going to have to introduce one species involved. You're welcome.
The Greater Honeyguide (Indicator inddicator) is a species of bird related to the woodpecker, and is found in most areas of sub-Saharan Africa. They are not large birds, rarely exceeding 50cm in length or 50g in mass [4].
The honeyguide is considered a brood parasite, and is known to trick multiple different species into thinking that the honeyguide's eggs are its own [6].
 Though its diet is somewhat varied, the honeyguide typically feeds on beeswax, bee egs, larvae, and other forms of food inside a beehive. The bird typicallly feeds on beehives in a manner of ways.  The Honeyguide might attack the beehive during the dormant hours, morning or dusk.  It might feed on abandoned hives, or scavenge hives already attacked by humans of honey badgers.
Not the biggest, not the brightest, not the loudest, and definitely not the prettiest, the Greater Honeyguide is seemingly a lackluster bird.

However, what the honeyguide lacks in "wow" factor, it makes up for in creativity.  The honeyguide is called so because it has developed a cooperative relationship with humans, and will actually guide hunters to beehives [1].

Description and Cost/Benefit of the relationship

The relationship is certainly beneficial to both sides.  By using a specific call for humans [2], the honeyguide basically says "Hey! I know where the honey is," and entices hunters to follow it.  Once the hunter does his/her job, namely disabling the bees and harvesting the nest, the bird ideally collects its reward in the form of the leftovers [3].  Observe the following video from the BBC.

This relationship provides an excellent example of cooperation.  Both species obviously benefit from the relationship.  Studies have shown a marked increase in efficiency for the hunters when the cooperation is made use of [5]. A certain tribe, the Boran of East Africa, even developed a special whistle called the fuulido, which has shown to increase encounter with the honeyguide by as much as 50% [1].   However, neither species REQUIRES the relationship to continue: the honeyguide can feed without human help, and humans can harvest beehives without honeyguide assistance.  

There is not really much cost/benefit analysis to be done for this cooperative relationship. Logically, a cooperative relationship wouldn't have very high cost involved, for both parties enter the relationship by choice. Really, the only cost involved is the sharing of a food source. The honeyguide gives up a portion of its food by leading humans to the nest. Indeed, the hunters might give up a portion of their find to repay the honeyguide, but in some cases do not [3].  However, the benefits obviously outweigh the cost.

I see no reason why this relationship wouldn't continue. Both parties benefit, and neither faces many risks.


1. Isack, H. A. and H.-U. Reyer (1989). "Honeyguides and honey gatherers: interspecific communication in a symbiotic relationship"Science 243 (4896): 1343–1346
2. Short, Lester, and Jennifer Horne (2002a). "Family INDICATORIDAE (HONEYGUIDES)". In Josep Del Hoyo, Andrew Elliott, and Jordi Sargatal (Eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World: Jacamars to Woodpeckers, Vol. 7. Lynx Edicions
3. Short, Lester, Jennifer Horne, and A. W. Diamond (2003). "Honeyguides". In Christopher Perrins (Ed.). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. pp.396–397
4. The Nasvhille Zoo Website.
5. Science News , Vol. 135, No. 11 (Mar. 18, 1989), p. 172.
6. Iziko Museums of Cape Town website.
7. BBC "Talking to Strangers." Accessed 4/11/12

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