Profiteers of the Busy Bee

Observations on the Honey Guides of Africa

lesser honey guide

The head of the lesser honey guide, Melignothes minor.—Note the extremely blunt beak, serviceable perhaps for tearing honeycomb apart, but of little use in pecking open the tree where it is hidden. Drawn from a specimen by W. E. Belanske.

Were a facetious journalist to attempt to endow a mythical bird with some startling but imaginary instinct, he would hardly be likely to go to the lengths to which nature has gone in the case of the common honey guide of Africa. The strange behavior of this bird has so long been known, moreover, that it surprises one to find how little has been written about it beyond simple accounts of the way the bird attracts the attention of men and reveals to them the location of beehives. Sparrman, who traveled in South Africa as long ago as 1775, gave one of the best descriptions from his personal observations, and was able to quote a still earlier account of the bird, accurate in the main, by Father Jerome Lobo, who had gone as a missionary to Abyssinia in 1625. As Sparrman concluded, the moroc, or honey bird, of the Abyssinians could be none other than the common honey guide. This testimony has been confirmed by a great number of travelers, sportsmen, and trained ornithologists who have since visited the open grassy regions of Africa, over which the bird is so widely distributed.

One of the Strangest Characters of the Bird World

female honey guide

The female lacks the throat patch of pure black by which the male is readily distinguished.

Herbert Lang
The common African honey guide (Indicator indicator) performs a useful but not unselfish service in conducting man to some hive it has previously located. How this bird came to know that man could be of help in obtaining the food it prefers is still a subject for conjecture, but through his willing aid the honey guide is often enabled to feast upon the bee larvae, which it probably covets more than the honey. Whether the wax that Indicator indicator so often swallows also serves as food seems very doubtful. That the substance is beeswax is apparent from the way it melts on a hot knife blade, only to congeal again as the blade cools. Birds of both sexes act as honey guides, but the female, in addition to this rather commendable habit, has the more questionable one of laying her eggs in the nests of other birds and thus of avoiding the responsibilities of motherhood. Although resembling our cowbird in this practise, Indicator indicator is a near relative not of this malefactor but of the woodpeckers. Nevertheless, it rarely if ever climbs about on the trunks of trees, preferring to perch on twigs and boughs. As in the case of the woodpeckers, only two toes of each foot are directed forward, two being pointed to the rear. The picture is that of a female and was obtained in the northeastern corner of the Belgian Congo.

Avoiding the heavy forests of the Congo basin and other parts of western Africa, the common honey guide (Indicator indicator) ranges from Cape Colony to northeast Africa, and then across the Sudan to Senegal. It is a plain-colored, brownish-gray bird, scarcely larger than our American bluebird, but much more stockily built, with short dense plumage, and a skin so tough that it has often been considered a cuirass against the stings of bees. When fully grown, both sexes have half-concealed epaulets of yellow; and the male bird is then distinguished by a large black throat patch. The immature birds are somewhat greener and until a few years ago were regarded as a distinct species. The nearest relatives of the honey guides, in our North American fauna, are the woodpeckers; yet the honey guides have neither stiffened tail feathers nor an extensile tongue.

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