The Impact of Globalization on Cultures

People and Birds Working Together – Differently

Research team

Jessica van der Wal, Principal Investigator
Claire Spottiswoode, Collaborator
Eliupendo Laltaika, Collaborator
Brian Wood, Collaborator
Anap Anaf, Collaborator
Wiro-Bless Kamboe, Research Assistant (Ghana)
Sanele Nhlabatsi, Research Assistant (Kingdom of Eswatini)
Rochelle Mphetlhe, Research Assistant (Botswana)
David Garakva, Research Assistant (Cameroon)
Faroukou Wabi, Research Assistant (Benin)
Farisayi Dakwa, Database manager


Key information

Full title: A pan-African collaboration to document Africa’s remaining diversity of endangered honey-hunting cultures with honeyguide birds
Host institution: FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
Research locations: six African countries


Project overview 

No species lives in isolation: all interact with other species to survive. Such interactions can affect one another’s lives positively or negatively. In parts of Africa, people hunt collaboratively for honey with a wax-eating bird called the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator). ‘Honey-hunters’ summon the help of this wild bird that leads them to bees’ nests, which they then harvest for honey using tools and fire. The birds feed on beeswax left behind. This type of interaction, in which both partners benefit, is called a ‘mutualism’ and is very rare between humans and wild animals. This ancient and remarkable human-bird partnership is sadly declining across Africa. Where it does still occur, there is striking variation in human cultural behaviours that affect honeyguides, such as the calls people use to communicate with the honeyguides. The birds seem to learn the calls of their local human allies. This indicates that the bird and human culture are closely linked, and affect one another.

Yao honey-hunters Mele Buanachique (left) and Carvalho Nanguar (right) harvesting a bees nest – Photo taken by Jessica van der Wal and used with permission (under UCT’s Science Faculty Human Ethics Committee approval code FSREC 46–2019)

To understand how this works, I will collaborate with early-career researchers in places where the mutualism still occurs, to document the remaining distribution and diversity of Africa’s remaining honey-hunting cultures. They will interview honey-hunters about their honey-hunting practices, and identify the causes of the decline of human-bird mutualism. Together we will ask:

  1. Where is honey-hunting still active, and to what extent does it rely on mutualism with honeyguides?
  2. How do honey-hunting communities differ in their behaviour relevant to honeyguides?
  3. What are the reasons for decline or loss of the mutualism?

Systematically mapping the variation in honey-hunting cultural behaviour will help plan experiments to test how in return honeyguides adjust to this variation, and better understand how human and non-human cultures can evolve together. Finally, the project will help to train and boost the careers of seven African early-career researchers.


Project contacts

If you would like to contact the project team, please email the grant management team in the first instance, at ces.transformationfund@durham.ac.uk.

Jessica van der Wal: Website, Twitter
Honeyguide Research Group