Lies, damned lies, and honey badgers

By Ed Yong | September 19, 2011 9:00 am

I recently wrote a piece about a bird called the greater honeyguide, whose chicks brutally murder those of other birds. But honeyguides are better known for a more helpful behaviour – leading humans to bee hives. The people break open the hives and leave behind an otherwise inaccessible piece of honey for the bird.

In the post, I mentioned that the honeyguide also has an alliance with that darling of silly internet memes, the honey badger. I first heard that honeyguides lead honey badgers to bee hives when I was a child, and I’ve seen the fact repeated ever since. I have even seen footage of their interaction on a wildlife documentary.

Others apparently have too. When I tweeted about my honeyguide post, Joe Hanson replied with “Typical of a honey badger ally.” Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, says, “[Honeyguides] are also well known for leading the honey badger, or ratel, to bee hives in eastern Africa.” And for those tutting at Wikipedia, this particular fact also shows up in an authoritative textbook on African birds and David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds.

Unfortunately, it’s not true.

Claire Spottiswoode, author of the recent honeyguide paper, set me straight. Even though the bird certainly teams up with humans, Spottiswoode said, “There is no persuasive evidence that honeyguides ever guide honey badgers”. Cue baffled noises from me, and the faint whimper of broken childhood memories. Spottiswoode continued: “You might have seen the YouTube clip of a honeyguide seemingly guiding a honey badger  – I’m afraid that was a set-up with a stuffed honeyguide and tame badger!”

For shame! Curse you, compelling yet inaccurate documentary editors!

The myth of the badger-guiding honeyguide began in 1785 with a man called Anders Sparrman, who had heard the story from local people. He never saw the actual behaviour first-hand. Neither had anyone else. In 1990, three ornithologists – Dean, Siegfried and Macdonald – wrote a paper debunking the honeyguide/honey badger story. In it, they wrote, “Naturalists and biologists have been active in Africa for more than 200 years. During this period, to the best of our knowledge, no biologist or naturalist, amateur or professional, has observed a Greater Honeyguide leading a Honey Badger to a beehive.”

Since 1990, Spottiswoode says that there still isn’t any evidence for badger-guiding, “despite some extensive studies of honey badgers in perfect honeyguide habitat in Mozambique.”

It’s possible that honeyguides follow the badgers to honey. Alternatively, people may have seen honeyguides showing guiding behaviour next to a honey badger. It’s certainly happened in the presence of a mongoose and baboon, but neither mammal reacted. And Dean once tried to play the sounds of honeyguides to three honey badgers; they didn’t respond.

Nor would you really expect them to. Dean, Siegfried and Macdonald point out that honey badgers are largely nocturnal, have poor eyesight and hearing, and don’t climb trees very well. If you were a honeyguide looking for an animal to lead to honey, you’d be scraping the bottom of the barrel to settle on a honey badger. The honey badger, of course, wouldn’t give a s**t…


Comments (16)

  1. Funny, where and when I grew up, the story was that the bird led a bear to honey. No badgers mentioned. And the humans were an afterthought (as in: scooping whatever honey was left over by the bear).

  2. This reminds me of the whole plover-cleaning-crocodile-teeth thing. It’s a story that people take for granted, but I don’t think there’s actually any actual evidence supporting such a mutualistic relationship between those two species.

  3. Mandarb

    Sheesh. This is a tale I’ve read about many times. Also saw it in some documentary, probably the same one as mentioned. Also read about it in a fiction book, where the character folllowed a honeyguide to a hive, smoked the bees out, and made sure to leave some honey for the honeyguide so that it in future wouldn’t lead him into a trap (can’t quite remember the nature of the trap).

  4. Lauren

    I always am impressed by the works you put out, and several times a week I am dumbfounded by the effort and quality that is constantly put out in this blog. The ability to combine geeky, internet-loving jokes into a well-researched and highly credible scientific journalism piece is always inspiring and rewarding to read. Thank you sir! I love feeling like we are simlpy getting a glimpse into your thought processes, and you’ve always presented materials in ways that are both readable to my friends in non-academic fields, and interesting and exciting for my collegues to read as well!

  5. Apparently also the rumour about its fierceness (e.g. that it can kill an adult buffalo by biting off his testicles) are quite exaggerated. Yet some people still like to believe that, contrarily to reason, a 15/20-kg grummy badger is the most badass animal around. For instance, the person who posted this video in which a leopard kills a honey badger ( tries to convince watchers (or him/herself maybe) that the leopard got injured by the fight, that if the badger was fit it would have been a different story, bla bla bla. I wonder whether Arsenal’s fans are that delusional of lately

  6. Robert S-R

    Nice video at the end there. :)

    I either never heard or never remembered the honeyguide story, so this doesn’t come as a shock to me, although I wonder how many other wildlife stories I’ve been telling with little or no evidence to back them up. Good thing nature has so many amazing things going on that myths can be replaced by facts without any loss in incredibility.

  7. J. Rorie

    I bet you thought that was a real honeyguide.

    NOPE, Chuck Testa.

  8. Brian Too

    OK, here’s a parallel thread.

    I’ve heard it stated, repeatedly and emphatically, that the most dangerous of Africa’s megafauna are (variously):

    Hippopotamus, crocodile, water buffalo.

    The point of which always seems to be, “bet you thought lions, but it isn’t so!” I have no trouble with what the answer is supposed to be. The fact that it seems to move around depending upon the speaker certainly seems to indicate a serious lack of any foundation though.

  9. zackoz

    The honey badger video coverage was ok, but that commentator was infuriating.

    Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the divine Attenborough.

  10. tall blue ape

    @zackoz You lose 1 internet

  11. Jerry Friedman

    Where is that sentence about honey badgers and honeyguides in Wikipedia? It’s not in the articles on the honey badger, honeyguides, or the greater honeyguide, and hasn’t been for years.

    @Mandarb: The part about honeyguides guiding humans to honey is absolutely true; it’s well studied. Even the belief that you have to leave some honey for the bird is documented for some cultures.

    The popular belief that lacks evidence is that honeyguides guide honey badgers.

  12. @Jerry – It was in the honeyguides page but has been removed. Someone’s linked to my post from it – maybe that’s why?

  13. Jerry Friedman

    @Ed: Thanks for the reply. The offending sentence was added Sept. 12, and indeed it was taken out in response to your post. I see I’m going to have to watch that Wikip article.

    Thanks also for fighting “academic legends”!

  14. Amy O.

    Thanks for debunking the myth. My 4-year old got a book from the library a few weeks ago. It was a story of how a greedy honey badger followed a honeyguide to a beehive and then wouldn’t share the honey. The next time the badger got hungry, the bird led the honey badger to a bush, and a lion was hiding behind it. Sweet revenge! The badger got away, but from then on, it always shared the honey. The book jacket said it was some African legend. Just looked up the title: Honey..Honey…Lion! Just yesterday, I learned about the meme. Between your post and the meme, that book will never be the same.

  15. Brian

    The honey badgers are competent tree climbers and do break into bee hives during the day. Until a study is conducted where both species co-exist, this issue will remain unresolved.
    Some authors have suggested that honey badgers are poor climbers (Wood 1876; Bryden
    1900; Cornish 1916) and are therefore unable to reach wild beehives. Numerous field studies in the southern Kalahari, however, have pointed to the contrary

    Isuggest that lack of seeing every single component of the bird guiding badger is not reason to exclude it form reality. Other birds (raptors) are known to follow the “honey “badger when it is digging up rodents. And I am sure the story could even have gone: bird follows badger, next time bird guides badger. I trust local indigenous knowledge more than an outsiders – think of the time spent by them in the habitat (over generations)…..This is why indigenous people on a regular basis will know MORE species of plants and MORE species of bees in an area before scientists do….they spend the time to get to know the land and creatures.
    See my facebook community page for interesting cultural stories about bees (and a tiny bit about birds and badgers).


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