Foraging for wild honey is a tricky business. Bee nests are hard to find, and their inhabitants swarm and sting to defend themselves. But in a rare and millennia-old collaboration, honey hunters in Africa get help finding bees’ nests from a small brown bird called the greater honeyguide. The honeyguide leads the honey hunter to a nest, typically hidden in the branches or hollows of a tree, and then the honey hunter uses smoke or tools to subdue the bees and scoop out the honey. As a reward, the avian guide gets the beeswax, a staple of its diet.
Collaborations like these between humans and wild animals are extremely rare, with only a few examples documented around the world. And those we know of are fast disappearing. Once widespread across the continent, honey hunting with honeyguides is now practiced by just a few ethnic groups in East Africa, particularly in rural areas of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya.
Scientists have long been fascinated by the unusual human-honeyguide relationship. Now a recent study published in Science shows the partnership is even closer than previously thought: Honeyguides can learn and react to the specific vocal signals used by different honey-hunting communities.
“We know that there is a learning process on the human side. We know that people learn different signals to communicate with birds by virtue of growing up in a certain human culture that does it a certain way,” says co-author Brian Wood, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a National Geographic Explorer. “We wanted to know if there is a learning process involved on the birds’ side of the relationship, too.”
Walking through the wild with honey hunters, the researchers played pre-recorded honeyguide calls used by two different communities in East Africa along with a control sound, and noted how often a honeyguide approached.
“There is a two to three times higher probability of birds responding to a local honey hunter signal,” says Wood, who conducted the study with lead author Claire Spottiswoode, a researcher at the University of Cape Town and Cambridge University, and leader of the Human Honeyguide Project.
The research provides critical insight into the complex communication involved in human-animal partnerships, says Oregon State University’s Mauricio Cantor, an expert in mutualism who was not involved in the study.
“You can ask humans, and they will tell you that the birds are responding to them, through their own perception. But whether or not the birds are indeed responding to specific calls we didn’t know,” Cantor says. “This study is so elegant in testing how the birds recognize and react to the precise signals in a very simple, clear way.”
Cantor studies the cooperation between artisanal fishers in southern Brazil and Lahille’s bottlenose dolphins, which signal the presence of migrating schools of mullet by diving, breaching, or slapping their tails or heads in the water, then corral the fish toward the shore, where fishers’ nets are waiting. Cantor found that fishers who partnered with dolphins caught almost four times more mullet, while the dolphins ate better and lived longer.
“Humans are great at using tools such as nets to catch the majority of the fish, but they’re not very good at detecting the fish in the murky water,” says Cantor, who was recently named a National Geographic Explorer as part of the Society’s Wildlife Intelligence Project. “The dolphins ecolocate so they can track the fish under water, and they’re good at herding the fish towards the humans.”
In Myanmar, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins have a similar partnership with humans, who often call the dolphins into service by tapping sticks against the sides of their boats.
But if instances of such cooperation benefit everybody involved, why are they so rare? “For humans and animals to join forces like this, a few elements need to be in place,” Cantor says, including a resource abundant enough that humans and animals are not competing with each other, and complementary hunting skills. Usually the missing ingredient is effective communication. “Do we have the same goal? And how are we going to coordinate to do this together? And when is the time to go?” he says. “It can take many trials and errors for the populations of both humans and animals to co-evolve in such a system.”
Historically, mutualism may have been more widespread when people depended on foraging, hunting, and fishing for their food. Records exist of orcas helping Aboriginal and Scottish immigrant whalers in the 1800s trap humpbacks and other species in southeastern Australia, for which they were rewarded with a share of the meat.
In North America, Indigenous people hunted cooperatively with wolves, according to research by evolutionary biologist Raymond Pierotti of the University of Kansas. The interdependent relationship, which possibly dated as far back as the Paleolithic era, may have contributed to the domestication of dogs when hunters selectively chose to partner with more sociable and less aggressive wolves.
With humans’ shift away from hunting and foraging, safeguarding the remaining human-wildlife collaborations has become increasingly important, according to a 2022 paper by Spottiswoode, Cantor, Pierotti, Wood, and colleagues.
Wolves were all but eliminated from the contiguous United States through hunting, leading to the disappearance of the wolf-human hunting relationship, while whale slaughter—including the intentional killing of several cooperating orcas by European settlers—contributed to the end orca-human cooperation in Australia. Irrawaddy dolphins now number fewer than 80, threatening Myanmar’s dolphin-human fishing relationships. And the rise of industrial fishing, increased shipping traffic, and contaminated waterways in Brazil have left only two villages cooperatively fishing with Lahille’s dolphins for mullet. Furthermore, modern hunting and fishing methods, such as guns and motorized boats, have reduced the need for people to cooperate with animals, and the increased risk of injury to potential animal partners has deterred them from participating.
When it comes to honeyguides and honey hunters, economics, land use changes, population growth, and other factors also are factors. The rise of apiculture and cheap, easily available alternative sweeteners have caused demand for wild honey drop, according to Wood. “And wild areas that can support bee colonies are increasingly put off limits to the local communities, so people are getting shut out from their traditional foraging areas,” he says.
Lastly, the knowledge so essential to cooperative hunting, fishing, and foraging is vanishing as new generations eschew the labor-intensive practices—and often rural livelihoods altogether.
Losing these traditions has repercussions far beyond the local communities that practice them, researchers say. “There is something almost mythical about being led through the woods by a wild animal, by a bird,” Wood says. “It gives us a glimpse of a completely different kind of relationship between humans and other species, and a recognition of wider possibilities for how humans can make their way in the world.”