Guides and Gatherers
A bird-human partnership to hunt honey has co-evolved – a beautiful example of a biocultural interspecies relationship.
THERE IS A bird in Africa called the greater honeyguide that has evolved the ability to guide people to wild bees’ nests in order to share the booty with them. It consumes the honeycomb together with the protein-rich grubs. This bird guides people because although it can easily find bees’ nests, and remember their locations, it cannot get inside without human help (or that of a honey badger). Honey gatherers, on the other hand, work with the bird because although they are highly skilled (I have watched them track down a nest by finding and aligning flecks of yellow pollen dropped by the homebound bees) they can find more honey more quickly with the birds’ help.
And honey is a fabulous product: it tastes great, stores well, is medicinal and highly tradable, makes delicious mead, is perfect to find and eat whilst on a journey, and the wax can be used in numerous ways. In short, it’s a delicious part of any livelihood.
The greater honeyguide has evolved a capacity to learn complex guiding behaviour, and a guiding call specific to humans. In order to track two spatially and temporally distributed resources (humans and bees), the bird has had to give up parental care, so just like a cuckoo, it lays its eggs in the nests of other species, which leaves it mobile. In turn, honey gatherers have learned to partner with the bird, developing specific sounds to call it, and have developed a culture of sharing the bee products.
This wonderful bird-human relationship is an example of the nature of bioculturalism. The boundaries in the Western mind between culture and biology, and what is human and what is Nature, don’t work with the bio-cultural. Interdependence is deep; and in a case like this, both benefit. There’s also a genetic component which flows into a learned component, for in different regions people call to the bird with different sounds. This tradition of inter-species language persists and evolves in different communities over time and in unique ways. In some places gatherers even send smoke signals to the birds!
Astonishingly, other species have also learned to decode this language. I’ve seen for myself that the pale chanting goshawk, a desert raptor, is often first on the scene when a honey gatherer starts to call for the bird. The hawk quietly takes up position on a nearby tree and prepares to catch and eat any approaching honeyguide. Meanwhile the lesser and the scaly-throated honeyguides (which themselves do not guide) quietly appear and follow the procession led by the greater honeyguide, seeking their part of the spoils. What’s happening here is co-evolution. It has taken much time, and something very complex has been put together through innovat?on and response. And yet it can be undone all too quickly.
Even though such co-evolution can be fruitful for both parties, it survives only through transmission from one generation to the next. Where the birds and the people are separated they lose competence, for though the bird is still programmed genetically to guide, and people may still have stories about the bird existing, such co-operation requires practical learned skills, and the system as a whole survives only by its actual performance.
This learned skill of landscape performance requires a teacher. I lived with a Zimbabwean community that had a great understanding of the nest sites and behaviour of various species of tiny stingless meliponine bees. One of the species, a Trigona of some kind, liked to make its nest in strange patches of clay called zvimhamhare, presumably because these would not get flooded out in the rains. At the entrance to its nest it would make a tiny wax cone to protect it. You could barely see this cone, and following these tiny bees was a very slow way of finding their nests. So there was a tradition of stripping-off and rolling slowly across the patch of clay until you felt the faint smear of this wax cone against your body. You then traced back to find the nest. Just knowing how this was done doesn’t mean that it’s possible for the novice to go out and do it. It needed a master teacher like the late Joseph Magwidi.
When I had the privilege of Trigona honey gathering in Western Arnhem Land in Northern Australia I tried to use my African methods to find likely sites and look for returning bees. I got nowhere. My Aboriginal hosts explained that the way they gathered this type of honey was not by looking for the bees or their nest sites at all. Instead they followed a brightly coloured little wasp which lived by finding stingless bee nests and then parasitising them by laying its eggs inside to feed on the brood. By following the wasp they could then find the honey.
Thus is the biocultural relationship typically enabled by unusually deep knowledge. Much of it relies on the human ability for extraordinary powers of observation, and then being able to tell the next generation about it, typically with a song. And only a slice of such knowledge is mutually beneficial for the species concerned, although of course one of things that always gets transmitted is the need for love and respect for the one that is harvested, and never to take more than is needed.
LIKE MUCH THAT is biocultural in the world today, honey gathering with the honeyguide is being eroded as new cultural ideas spread about economy and progress. Once common across savannah and woodland peoples throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, active guiding relationships have declined dramatically in recent decades. The honeyguide has had to revert to scavenging wax, hunting insects, or collaborating with the honey badger where that species is still present. The bird has become rarer. Like the ox-pecker that once removed ticks from our livestock and is now subject to poison by cattle-dipping, this bird is declining as we disengage with it.
On the human side, the use of the honeyguide to gather significant quantities of honey has become concentrated among communities that are considered ‘backward’. This is again a common feature of the nature of biocultural diversity: in recent centuries such complex, intimate and sustained relationships are becoming increasingly concentrated among minority and Indigenous peoples.
SO, IN THE face of such loss, what can be done? A crucial and surprisingly little attended-to approach is to ask what the custodians of this tradition – in this case honey gatherers – actually say they need in order to continue. By backing these local efforts on their own terms we count on an amazing amount of passion and knowledge, and we get right to the heart of the problem: namely, why this knowledge and relationship with Nature is not getting transferred to the next generation.
At The Christensen Fund we have the privilege of supporting such a project with Samburu-speaking honey gatherers in Ngurnit in the Ndoto Hills of Northern Kenya. This ‘Dorobo’ group are now a sub-section of a primarily pastoral people and live through hunting and honey-gathering around a stunning mountain that arises from the desert east of Lake Turkana. Daudi Lolmongoi, one of the local stewards of this tradition, explains, “Bees are to us what cattle are to the pastoralist. The milk of ilchangaro [bee grubs] which is fed to our children, especially during dry seasons, is better than cattle milk. It gives the Dorobo good health and strength.”
Each family in the Ndotos has custodianship of a strip of forest land that extends from the lowlands up into the mountains, providing them the full range of ecological zones, and this land is carefully managed and re-allocated at circumcision and marriage. This practice continues even though their home has officially become a government forest, though it is now more difficult for elders to protect their territories since they are not allowed to live within the forest itself and have no legal right to exclude people. The government has no funds for a forest guard. Here’s another feature of biocultural diversity – it typically involves complex traditions of managing landscapes and knowledge as ‘common property’ that enables the local rich complexities of time and space to be respected. And the private and state property regimes now roaming around wherever there are still significant natural resources to be “conserved” nearly always bring challenges to the traditional systems that have preserved them.
As a foundation we found a way to support this community through a local ally and this has encouraged the Dorobo to re-value their tradition and to sustain it and share it with other peoples for whom it was disappearing. This organisation takes elders into the classroom to teach, and children into the forest to learn. Knowledge of the bird is intertwined with knowledge of forest ecology, the stories of caves, and how to light a fire without matches. It’s exciting, and pride surges. As Lepitilin Leulika puts it, “The honeyguide is a brother, mother and friend of the Dorobo. It talks to us. It is like a human being. We do not harm it.” Schoolteachers get excited, too, and education ceases to be about negating Indigenous knowledge. The tradition leaps the generational divide.
To fund this work we needed the kind of exceptional person who could lead by following. We found this in the shape of Dr Hussein Adan Isack, who for his Oxford University doctorate addressed how humans and honeyguides actually learned to communicate, working among his own community of northern Kenyan nomads, the neighbouring Gabbra. Twenty years later, as Head of the Department of Cultural Heritage at the National Museums of Kenya, he is helping many of the small peoples of Kenya maintain their living traditions and environmental relationships, including these Dorobo.
Partnerships that occur at community and landscape scale typify the co-evolutionary approach to sustaining biocultural diversity – while
being happy. Connecting with Nature should not be seen as a burdensome duty, for happiness also coevolves with bioculturalism.