Profiteers of the Busy Bee

Observations on the Honey Guides of Africa

The honey-guide understands, and having, with undulating flight, sought another tree some thirty yards further on, renews his invitation. Keeping quite still, and looking steadily, you presently spy a little gray and black form, moving along at a steady jog-trot; the tail is carried slightly above the level of the back, and the head, except when raised to glance up at the guide, is held a little low. Every time the bird utters his monotonous refrain, which, translated into feathered language, means 'Come along, come along, don't be so slow,' the follower replies, 'All right, my friend, don't be alarmed, I am coming.' And thus the strange procession passes on out of sight to the hollow log where the unlucky insects are industriously slaving, only ultimately to satisfy the appetites of bird and beast.” The favorite food of this badger is honeycomb, and it has powerful claws with which to tear open the hive.

The instinct of the honey guide is unique among birds. It is far more complex than the “guarding” of buffaloes and rhinos by the oxpeckers (Buphaga). There the birds have come to feed on the ticks that cling to the animal's hide; and they merely alarm their hosts by their cries when they take flight at the approach of an enemy. The honey guide, on the other hand, recalls the action of a dog in leading a stranger to a spot where its master lies in distress, although the motive is, of course, entirely different. It brings to mind also the story so widely circulated by the newspapers a year or two ago, of a gander on a farm in Alabama which used to lead a blind ox to the watering trough every day by its cackling. I cannot vouch for the truth of this narrative, though photographs of the strangely assorted couple appeared in a New York paper of good repute.

No doubt the specialists in animal behavior have an explanation that does not require any reasoning on the part of the honey guide. The guiding is instinctive, for it has become hereditary with at least one species of Indicator, and is practised by old birds of both sexes, and apparently by immature birds as well. The fact that it is a characteristic form of behavior throughout the whole range of the species argues for its remote origin and leads us to believe that the instinct grew up slowly with the evolution of the family, though man is not always the beneficiary. The honey guides must have preyed on bees long before savage man reached Africa, and we may speculate, quite properly, as to the origin of the guiding instinct.

The honey guide family (Indicatoridae) is not a large one; it comprises, nevertheless, five genera [Melignothes, Melignomon, Indicator, Melichneutes, and Prodotiscus] and about twelve species, of which two are found in the Oriental region, the remainder in Africa south of the Sahara. None of them exceeds seven and a half inches in length. I myself have secured specimens of six species for the American Museum and may thus claim a speaking acquaintance with four of genera. Yet none save Indicator indicator ever offered to guide me to a beehive. A patient search of books and articles dealing with African birds reveals only one other species, Indicator variegatus of East and South Africa, which according to reliable authority [Ivy, Ibis, 1901. p. 21], renders the same service to mankind. Sir John Kirk [Ibis, 1864, pp. 327-28] seems to have used the name Indicator minor his oft-quoted account through mere accident, this being the only species in the collection upon which he was reporting. His description of the habits is quite clearly based upon I. indicator.

young honey guide

A young honey guide of the genus Indicator, only a few days old.—This drawing was made by W. E. Belanske from a photograph by Dr. Alwin Haagner, director of the Pretoria Zoological Garden.

The young bird, the feathers of which are beginning to sprout, was found in the nest hole of a diamond sparrow, Petronia superciliaris; and from the fact that an adult of the scaly-throated honey guide (Indicator variegatus) had previously been seen in the tree, it was inferred that the young bird was also of that species. The extraordinary hooks at the tips of both mandibles may be homologous with the extensive calcareous cap which at first covers the entire tip of the upper mandible of young woodpeckers, although the latter have nothing of the sort on the end of the lower mandible. Doctor Haagner later received a live nestling of the common honey guide (Indicator indicator) almost fully fledged, which still retained both hooks on its beak. After a few days that on the tip of the lower mandible was shed, and the upper one would doubtless soon have followed suit, had the bird survived. The foot was not shown in the photograph, but has been introduced in the drawing from a somewhat older nestling of Indicator in the American Museum collection. Note the roughened heel-pad, which recalls those of young barbets and toucans—neither of them very distant relatives.

It is entirely safe to say that the majority of honey guides do not guide, or at least do not guide men. Nevertheless, I have noted in examining their stomachs in the Congo, as has Mr. G. L. Bates in the Cameroon, that more often than not these other species have swallowed beeswax, just as does the common honey guide, which has hives opened for it by men. Other insects, such as winged termites and perhaps adult bees in the open, are also preyed upon occasionally, but bee comb and bee larvae seem to be preferred. The stomach contents not infrequently smell of honey, and we may suppose that the wax is swallowed incidentally—not by preference.

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