Of birds, bees and badgers…

Of birds, bees and badgers…

The fierce little honey badger.

For most of us, the honey badger is right up there on our wish list of animals we want to see on safari. It is unusual to spot one and when we do, the sighting is usually fleeting. But if you are lucky enough to see one, you should be on the lookout for certain behaviours – particularly around honey!

These insatiable little mammals are omnivores and get their name from their fondness for feeding on honey – or more accurately, the honey bee larvae. They are fascinating creatures, and we will explore them in greater depth in the next article. For today, we are focusing on their role, together with other creatures, as “honey foragers”. To access the honey and larvae, the badger uses its claws and teeth to break through the honeycomb. The bees obviously protect their hive, but badgers are immune to bee stings. Their thick skins and coats also help to mitigate effect of the stings.

The ultimate prize for these creatures – honeycomb.

When watching a honey badger foraging, you may see that its efforts are interrupted by a dry, rattling call from a little greyish bird, flitting around and then perching nearby. This is a greater honeyguide, and the story goes that it has found a beehive and is communicating this with the badger. It does this as it is unable to access the hive itself and needs the badger to break it open. The badger knows to associate this bird with a hive, and so willingly follows it. Once at the site, the badger breaks open the hive. The badger is a messy eater, and leaves plenty of the spoils lying around for the little bird. Both parties benefit from this arrangement – badgers are led to the hive whilst honeyguides gain access to the hive. The jury is out as to whether badgers do in fact follow the honeyguides (this behaviour has not yet been conclusively documented) – but it has happened often enough for this to become a commonly described behaviour. 

The pale chanting goshawk.

Badgers are amazingly strong – but not necessarily very fast. Another of their favourite foods is rodents, which they dig out from their burrows. An alert mouse, if it is quick enough, can escape the badger’s attentions by dashing past it. Which is an opportunity for other creatures. In the Kalahari, pale chanting goshawks will shadow the badger, awaiting just such an opportunity. 

The wily black-backed jackal.

Less frequently, a black-backed jackal may hover around the badger for the same reason. This is a risky business, as a badger that is annoyed by the jackal could well turn on it. If the jackal is not fast enough, it will not survive. That said, the badger knows it will only catch a rodent it has been able to corner, and so it generally doesn’t treat these hangers-on as competitors for food – thus tolerating them.

Humans have been a part of the African Savannah for over 300 000 years. To many with a westernised mindset, wilderness areas operate ideally devoid of humans. Yet indigenous people have been in this environment since the dawn of time. And so it is that they too have a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with the greater honeyguide. There are some great videos in the info block if you would like to learn more about this.

The ancient African savannah.

In the Kalahari specifically, the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) recognises the San people (or “Basarwa” – as the San people of Botswana are known) as super predators. It has developed the skill of leading them to the wild hives too. The legend goes that it is important that the humans leave bits of honeycomb with honey and bee grubs for the bird. If they fail to do so, it is believed that the next time the little birds will lead them to a mamba or a cobra or something equally dangerous.

These symbiotic behaviours provide both context and interest to our experiences is the bush, bring the environment alive – especially for children. I have stated this before, but you really cannot emphasize it enough… The more you know about the bush and its inhabitants, the richer your experience will be!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


The honey guide bird leads the Honey badger:

How honeyguide birds talk to people:

Honeyguides and honey hunters (hour long documentary)

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