January 2021

To follow a honeyguide – myth or marvel?


To follow a honeyguide – myth or marvel?

In most cultures, including the African culture, there are a lot of beliefs and myths some people follow. Some can be true and some folklore. Growing up I was taught a lot things, including some skills that inspired me to be who I am today, but I didn’t understand why my grandfather would spend almost half a day in the bush looking and following a chattering small bird which he believed would lead him to a beehive.

A greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) is a very important bird in most African cultures whereby one is not allowed to kill it because of its skill to locate beehives. Honey is a very good alternative to sugar and has been used in our everyday diet because of its healthy nutrition values. It is believed, when one sees a honeyguide and follows it, that it will lead you to a beehive, but on the condition that when you harvest the honey you must leave some for the bird to consume as way of saying thank you. If you became greedy and don’t leave some, next time you follow it it’ll lead you to dangerous creatures!

One day, out of curiosity, I wanted to find out whether it was true or just a myth that honeyguides can lead you to beehives. My young friend and I decided to follow one of the birds that we used to see within the vicinity of our village, as the birds are believed to know the locality of most hives. As if the bird knew that we were going to follow it, it came flying  above us and greeted us with a chattering song. Now that we had located it or it had located us, our next worry and question was, did its last symbionts thank the bird after harvesting the honey or were we going to be victims led to dangerous creatures…

We decided to embark on our mission anyway and see what the outcome would be – that is if we survived to tell the story. I think the bird’s patience was running out as it started initiating the guiding by chattering fervently while perched to attract our attention. As we started following it would fly to another perch, so we kept on  following, but, interestingly, when we stopped the bird would come back and try to engage with us. We walked and followed the honeyguide for about two hours. We went through gullies, crossed streams, climbed kopjes until the bird stopped and subtly changed its behaviour and call – and we knew we had arrived at something. The bird didn’t show us anything so we had to look around ourselves. We heard some bees buzzing and we checked around nearby trees, being cautious. We noticed that one of the big msasa trees (Brachystegia spiciformis) a few metres above us had bees going in and out of a hole. We looked at each other with astonishment and knew our mission was accomplished. The honeyguide was still chit-chatting above us and flying from branch to branch of the same tree, and we knew it was waiting for its share.

The hive was located in a tree cavity which required us to climb the tree. Harvesting and collecting honey can be dangerous because of bee stings so we had to make a fire and use the smoke to make the bees docile and less active. With the axes we had, we opened the hive in such a way that it could be used again, collected the honey and payed our dues to the honeyguide by leaving some as a way of saying thank you, and so that we didn’t befall the misfortune of being led to dangerous creatures next time we followed it.

I am still careful even now when collecting honey to leave some for the bird. For me the greater honeyguide story is not a myth, it is a true life experience.

By Alex Kadziyanike
Professional Guide