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The Hadza-Honeyguide Story Ain’t as Sweet as TV Pretends

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 18, 2016

Greater honeyguide (Photo: Wilferd Duckitt/Flickr)

Greater honeyguide (Photo: Wilferd Duckitt/Flickr)

I just ran across this lovely story by Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura, and it’s another great example of how the tales we tell about nature just aren’t as neat and simple as we like to pretend.  The guilty parties this time include Discovery Channel and David Attenborough, but first, the background:

When Hadza want to find honey, they shout and whistle a special tune. If a honeyguide is around, it’ll fly into the camp, chattering and fanning out its feathers. The Hadza, now on the hunt, chase it, grabbing their axes and torches and shouting “Wait!” They follow the honeyguide until it lands near its payload spot, pinpoint the correct tree, smoke out the bees, hack it open, and free the sweet combs from the nest. The honeyguide stays and watches.

When they are done, the Hadza supposedly repay the honeyguide for its help by leaving some of the treat, which it otherwise could not get into without human help.  For instance, in the recent film, Hadza: Last of the First:

In one scene of the film, after a group of Hadza men smokes bees out of a hive, they are shown throwing pieces of the honeycomb, which hit the ground in slow motion. The bird, filmed in close-up on a flattened patch of grass, snaps them up. A narrator explains, “The bird will wait patiently and fly down, and will essentially take the leftovers… it’s the most developed, co-evolved, mutually helpful relationship between any mammal and any bird.”

Giaimo recounts similar just-so versions of the story, about the Maasai:

On Discovery’s “Human Planet,” for example, two Maasai boys leave their feathery convoy a big chunk of comb. As the narrator says, they “know they have to pay their guide.”

If you’ve come across the BBC show “Trials of Life,” you might have even watched the exuberant David Attenborough share honey with the Kenyan bird who led him to a chock-full tree. “If the bird hadn’t shown us where this bee’s nest was, we would have never gotten this sweet reward,” he says, his mouth full of it. “But then, if we hadn’t broken open a bee’s nest, the bird would never have been able to get into the honey. Since it is a partnership, it’s only fair that the bird should get a reward. So it’s the custom in these parts not to take all the honey, but to give some of it to the bird.” He molds a piece of waxy comb around the tip of a spear stuck in the ground, and is on his way.

Brian Wood selfie on a Hadza honey run.

Brian Wood selfie on a Hadza honey run.

But here’s the sticking point for happy talk about the natural world: A biological anthropologist at Yale named Brian Wood studied the Hadza in detail, and Giaimo reports:

Thanks to Hadza custom, the birds weren’t guaranteed any reward. Indeed, the Hadza were committed to stiffing their helper, meticulously destroying any grubs or wax that the honeyguide might make a meal from.

“I can go back into my notes to one of the very first times I was following a Hadza man,” Wood says. “I wrote down, ‘He’s taking the honeycomb and throwing it into the bush… he just grabs a handful of bee larvae and honeycomb and throws it into a tree.’” The second time, Wood says, the same thing happened: “He actually dug a hole and shoved the honeycomb that remained into it, and buried it.”

“I asked the Hadza guy to explain what was happening,” Wood says, “and his explanation was simply that they don’t want the honeyguide to get too full.” This would have impaired the bird’s work for the next day, according to the Hadza. Over and over, Wood watched foragers hide, bury, or burn excess wax, even when the birds were nowhere to be seen. In one video taken by Wood, a young man named Koyobe chews on some comb while detailing his reasoning. “If the honeyguide eats, she gets full,” he tells Wood, in Swahili. “Then she just would sit. She wouldn’t call.” Next to him, the remnants of a bee’s nest smolder in a fresh fire.

Check out the whole story here and keep it in mind next time you are tempted to recount some bit of natural lore that just sounds a little too good to be true.

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