Place matters. Cultures did not develop in a vacuum, but in response to people’s surroundings. The flora and fauna in which humans were immersed determined the rhythm of daily life, social dynamics and banks of knowledge. To live so close to the land, groups of people were required to be experts in their environments.
Unlike today where people set out to obtain expertise in a certain subject, early humans developed their expansive knowledge because they had deeply rooted relationships with the environment from birth. Actually, this relationship began before birth for each person’s knowledge was an amalgamation of all previous generations’ experiences; their education was an oral history, perfectly designed to teach people how to live and thrive in that particular place. In this arrangement humans were not separate entities, but an integral part of a well-honed ecosystem. We evolved alongside the animals and sometimes even developed mutually beneficial relationships with them.
One such relationship is truly exceptional: the relationship between humans and greater honeyguides. These small birds have quite an appetite for the honey, wax and larvae produced by honeybees. Of course, their intended meals are well protected in the fortress that is a beehive. It goes without saying that the birds need assistance if they are going to penetrate such a well-protected edifice and have found an unlikely partnership in humans. It also goes without saying why this relationship would benefit humans, for who among us can turn down a dollop of wild honey?
Honeyguides initiate this cross-species interaction by indicating with their call that they should be followed. Of course, the chosen person must recognise the call for what it is and must have the requisite desire to follow; otherwise the honeyguide’s “WHIT-purr…WHIT-purr…” will simply blend into the cacophony of various bird calls. If the person does choose to follow the honeyguide, then they may be in for quite the trek. The bird will fly from tree to tree, sometimes for miles, stopping to make sure its person has not lost the way. Then the bird will circle the area where the beehive is to be found. This will take some effort and the human must be prepared to take the risks inevitably involved when opening a beehive. The culmination of the joint journey makes it possible for the person to extract the honey and to allow the greater honeyguide access to the now compromised fortress of edibles.
Sadly, as with all relationships, trust can be broken. People who have considerable experience with honeyguides will tell you that the birds are known to take offense with humans who don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Therefore, if a human does not break open the beehive fortress, wasting the honeyguide’s apparently precious time, then the next person they guide may unwittingly find themselves in a sticky situation. Herbie, our beloved tracker, has been led to two leopards and has a friend who’s been led to a Black Mamba- not generally creatures one wants to unexpectedly encounter on foot. Of course, there is no research to verify the honeyguides vindictive behavior and must be given merely anecdotal status.
While this incredible interaction between humans and honeyguides depends on local knowledge being passed down from previous generations in humans, this is not the case for the greater honeyguides. These birds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other bird species’ nests; they do not actually raise their young. This means that the practice of finding and leading humans to beehives is not learned, but instinctual. The behavior, so ingrained, has taken root in the genetic code of the bird. In fact, there is discussion that the relationship was developed well before homo sapiens even existed and was initiated with the now extinct homo erectus over a million years ago (Wrangham, 2017). This means that humans and our ancestors have played a consistent part in the daily lives of the greater honeyguide.
This may not always be the case. Now that we have divorced ourselves from our immediate environments and have forgotten crucial aspects of living and interacting with particular environments, this relationship is slowly dying. In this instance, it is far easier to go keep bees oneself or to go to the grocery store in search of the sweet liquid; following a bird to obtain honey now seems impractical and irrational. It is because of these changes in the way humans live that the relationship has increasingly been relegated to the realm of legend and even those who spend their lives in the bush of southern Africa may never experience the fruits of this longstanding association.
Furthermore, it’s not just the bipedal creatures whose behavior is impacted by this change. With fewer humans to follow them, the honeyguides are less likely to lead. This instinctual behavior, developed eons ago, is beginning to fade. Humans, lacking knowledge of the very places we live, have failed the honeyguides. The birds can and will survive without this relationship, but what a loss.
While we like to think our knowledge is exponentially expanding, we may simply be sacrificing one kind of knowledge for another. As a species we are experimenting with a relatively new way of developing our knowledge and the process is beginning to feel unnatural; it is separated from the land that we live on and the people before us who evolved to thrive there. In spite of our denial that where we live should determine how we live, forgotten knowledge and broken relationships are clearly indicators that the cost of this is mentality is very high.
Kormann, C. (2017, October 12). How a Wild Bird Leads People to Honey. Retrieved December