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…