S23.4: The role of culture, traditions and local knowledge in co-operative honey-hunting between man and honeyguide: A case study of Boran community of northern Kenya

Hussein A. Isack

Ethnobiological Research & Documentation Centre, PO Box 163, Marsabit, Kenya

Isack, H.A. 1999. The role of culture, traditions and local knowledge in co-operative honey-hunting between man and honeyguide: A case study of Boran community of northern Kenya. In: Adams, N.J. & Slotow, R.H. (eds) Proc. 22 Int. Ornithol. Congr., Durban: 1351-1357. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.

The African bee, Apis mellifera adansonii defends its honey and other products through fortification and concealment of its wild nest sites, as well as through migrations and infliction of deadly stings on intruders (nest robbers). One of the intruders is man for whom honey is a source of many of his requirements such as food, medicine, sweetener, beverage and cash. The second intruder is a small bird known as the Greater Honeyguide, Indicator indicator which has specialised on a diet of beeswax. Although man can destroy bees' nests and get access to their contents, his greatest problem is to locate these wild nests. The honeyguide on the other hand knows the location of these nests but cannot break into them. This bird and man have evolved a symbiotic relationship where through inter-specific communication, each has benefited from the other's abilities. The bird guides man to a bee colony and man exposes the contents to the benefit of both. This study conducted on the bird and the Boran community of Marsabit district, northern Kenya reveals that this advanced and highly beneficial co-operation is being affected by cultural changes and the loss of indigenous knowledge in man.


The value of bee products to the Boran and the honeyguide

Bee products serve many important purposes for the Boran people. Local people consider the bee to be the best pharmacist in the world. Honey is super drug that is a used for the treatment of a wide spectrum of human diseases including chronic malaria, chicken-pox, pneumonia and stomach troubles. It is used for the sweetening of ordinary or substitute tea. Mixed with the fruits of Keglea tree, honey is used in the brewing of local alcohol which is consumed during important traditional ceremonies. Honey is also sold for cash. However, one of the most important role of honey may be that of providing food. Pure honey (Nadi), condensed pollen (Komte), the bee brood (Jiisa) and the combs in which they are contained (Daab) can all be eaten on the spot. Honey mixed with fresh cattle blood or milk is considered to be a very nourishing drink. The white, milky brood are considered to be a delicacy and are known to be more nutritious than honey itself. They revive vitality and enhance the process of convalescence.

As food, the roles that bee products play are probably most important during the times of food shortages. As the dry season progresses, the quantity of milk (the staple diet of pastoralists) diminishes (pers. obs.,Dahl and Hjort, 1976). One of the cultural responses to shortage of food is an increased dependence on game-hunting and gathering from the wild, although such a response is traditionally considered a despicable last resort. Such gathering of vegetable food and hunting of wild game is usually accompanied by honey-hunting. In northern Kenya, the amount of honey and protein rich brood in bees' nests is highest towards the end of the dry season, i.e., when the shortage of food, especially protein is greatest (Isack, 1987). The addition of bee broods and pollen as rich sources of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals plus the high energy yielding honey make bee products a well balanced diet. Bee brood is 15.4% protein, 3.71% fat and 0.6% carbohydrate (Hocking and Matsumura 1960). The same authors found the broods to contain vitamin A and D in concentrations 10 to 75 times higher than in cod liver oil. Pollen has a protein content comparable to that of beans, peas and lentils (Witherell 1975) and also contains small amounts of vitamin A, K, and E (Dietz 1975).

Bee products are also important for the honeyguides. The bird has the ability to digest bees-wax (Friedmann and Kern 1956). Therefore, not only is the bird able to extract and metabolise significant portions of lipids contained in the bees wax but it also benefits from the food qualities of all the other components of whole bee comb (brood, pollen, honey etc.) described above. As in the case for man, bee products serve as an additional or alternative food resource for honeyguide during the dry months of the year when insects, the bird's main food are in short supply. As a food resource, bee combs are also very viable. After removal from the bees' nest, combs usually dry up rather than rot. Our experiments have shown that an exposed comb can remain an exploitable food resource of the honeyguide for a period of at least three months.

Profitable as they are, bee products cannot be easily acquired by either the honeyguide or man. For man, the main problem is that of locating wild bees nests. The African bee is highly migratory, each colony swarming several times a year. The resulting new colonies are usually established in highly concealed sites in remote areas. Searching for these colonies without the help of the honeyguide is a time and energy consuming exercise which involves physical inspections and disturbance of all likely sites such as large tree trunks, termite mounds and rock crevices for colonies. The directions in which foraging bees fly off and the occurrence and concentrations of pollen drops ('bee droppings') on rock surfaces too may provide clues. With the help of honeyguide however, the average successful search time per hive is reduced by 64%. This is a results in a substantial saving of energy expenditure and increases in foraging efficiency (Isack 1986).

For the bird, one major problem is to avoid stings from the highly aggressive bees. In spite of their thick skins, honeyguides can easily be killed by bees (pers. obs.). The other problem is to get access to the usually well-protected combs. Of 319 wild beehives that I found in Marsabit district during this study, 67.7% were in rock crevices (rasa), 22.3% in tree hollows (Kiniis mukaa), 7.8% in termite mounds (Kiniis ko-oba), 1.6% in the ground (Kiniis lafa) and 0.6% in the open, hanging from a tree trunk (rarraato). Only 4.3% of all these nests had a wide enough opening for any possible acquisition of the enclosed combs by the birds. By associating with man, the bird gets access to many more bee combs, (i.e. to all those that are exposed after man has attacked the bee colonies) than it would without man's help.

Many African societies, including the Boran have developed a unique relationship with the Greater Honeyguide in which they co-operate with the bird in order to beat the bees' defence tactics and acquire honey and other bee products. The bird guides man to bee colonies, and man attacks the hives and exposes the contents.

Guiding behaviour

With this mutual benefit, the honeyguide and man try to attract each others' attention. A man seeking to advertise his presence and intentions to the bird while in the bush blows a special penetrating whistle by blowing air into clasped fists, modified snail shells or hollowed-out doum palm Hyphenae compressa nuts. Known as Fuulido in Boran language, the sound of this whistle can travel over a distance of several kilometres. Other sounds are made by wood-knocking and shouting. Visual advertisement is made by lighting smoky fires. However, a honeyguide can also approach a person without being called.

The bird draws man's attention by flying close to him. It perches in a conspicuous tree or bush and starts making a double-noted, persistent, often wavering ‘tirr-tirr-tirr-tirr…’ call. If approached by man, the bird increases the tempo of its call, flying in the direction of the bee colony. In order to further excite the bird and maintain active guiding activity, the man whistles, chops wood or keeps talking to the bird as he walks. Whenever the follower gets close, the bird flies, to another perch and waits for him while still calling. This pattern is repeated until the bees nest is reached, usually on a fairly direct route. On arrival at the colony, the bird becomes silent as the man begins the search for the nest. It may fly to the entrance of the colony and peer into it to indicate its exact location.


Why the bird guides

The Boran names for the honeyguide are ‘Simpirre Damma’ (honeybird) or ‘Hawole’. The Boran have a number of explanations for the existence of guiding behaviour. The main explanation is that the birds are punishing the bees for their past misdeeds. A long time ago, the hoopoe, the spurfowl, the woodpecker, the oxpecker, the safari ant and the honeyguide were all brothers and sisters. One day their mother died. They were each assigned separate burial tasks. The safari ant was to remain at home and guard the dead body. The hoopoe was instructed to start digging the grave as soon as the right implements were available. The woodpecker was asked to supply the implements (sticks) for digging the ground, and branches for fencing the grave. The spurfowl was asked to obtain a piece of cloth for wrapping up the dead body. The oxpecker was to find an ox which would be slaughtered at the funeral. And finally, the honeyguide was asked to summon other animals to help bury the body.

The first group of animals that the honeyguide met was a swarm of bees on migration. When asked to help (a socially compulsory duty), the bees simply said that they were in a great hurry to find a new home, and therefore had no time to assist the bereaved family. There and then the honeyguide took upon itself to punish the bees for their extremely anti-social behaviour. It vowed that they must never be allowed to have a successful home again. It approached man to help accomplish its perpetual goal in return for being guided to honey. Man complied, and now he is in the business of plundering bee homes. The other siblings too are still at work. The spurfowl is still trying to obtain the piece of cloth by suddenly flying out of bushes and startling human beings so that they may discard their cloth in panic. The woodpecker is still trying to chop branches off the trees. Tired of waiting for the arrival of digging implements, the hoopoe decided to have a go using its bill, and so to this day it has not given up. The oxpecker still tries to coax the ox for slaughter. Meanwhile, their dead mother has not been buried and the safari ant has sat besides the corpse until he (the ant) now stinks!

Cultural and scientific explanation of guiding behaviour

The Boran people's perception of the guiding behaviour is very similar to the scientific one described earlier. They display considerable amount of knowledge of the honeyguide. This knowledge is expressed in folklore, beliefs and practical uses of the bird. Honey hunters use the behaviour of the bird to deduce the direction of the bee colony to which the bird is guiding. The direction in which the bird flies is said to indicate the direction of the colony. They also maintain that the bird has prior knowledge of the locations of different bee colonies in an area and that this fact can be put to good use by manipulating the bird to guide to several colonies during a single guiding session. In this case, the honey collector pretends not to have located the first colony to which the bird guided him. After a while, the bird will guide him to another colony. This can be repeated until several bee colonies are discovered in a single day. It is said that because of this prior knowledge, the bird guides on a fairly direct route, and on arrival, it indicates the exact location of the bee colony through pronounced changes in the guiding calls and flight patterns. Honey collectors claim that flight and perching behaviour of the bird helps them to assess the distance to the bees' nest. Scientific observations, experiments and analysis of the behaviour of guiding birds have confirmed all these claims to have full scientific basis (Isack, 1989, Isack & Reyer, 1989).

Descriptive identification of the bird by the Boran

Though the bird is of some considerable economic importance, only 10% of the people interviewed (n = 165) were able to make an accurate description of the size, shape and plumage coloration of the honeyguide, and all of these were professional honey hunters. The remaining groups gave wildly inaccurate descriptions of the bird. In the field, some experienced honey hunters were able to recognise a 'silent' honeyguide as a honeyguide. The features that they use are the characteristically loud wing beats as the bird initially arrives at a site close to a human being, the white outer tail feathers (visible only while the bird is guiding), and the intensely inquisitive behaviour of the bird (Isack 1987).

Physical identification of the bird

When presented with museum prepared skins of the Greater Honeyguide Indicator indicator (male, female, juvenile) and males of Red-billed Quelea Quelea quelea, Red-billed Oxpecker Buphagus erythrorhynchus, African Black-headed Oriole Oriolus brachyrhynchus, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava and Nubian Woodpecker Campethera nubica, only 32 (15.2%) out of 210 adult Boran individuals correctly identified the honeyguide skins. This surprisingly low value for honeyguide identification may be explained by the fact that while being led by the bird, the people mainly depend on their ears in order to keep in contact with the bird, while the senses of vision are concentrated on the search for bees or for the necessary manoeuvres through the thorny acacia bush and (Isack 1987).

Vocal Identification

Subjects (adult Boran) listened to recorded calls of five locally occurring species of birds, namely, the Greater Honeyguide (guiding and territorial calls), Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver, and the Nubian Woodpecker. The result of the sound playback was significantly different from that of the identification of the skin. 169 (56.3%) of 300 adult individuals under investigation correctly identified the guiding call.

Does the bird guide man to dangerous animals?

Contrary to the traditional belief that the honeyguide often leads people to dangerous objects, I have never witnessed such an event, except on coincidental situations. However this belief is so widespread across the whole continent of Africa that a study of it may be warranted.

Respect for bees and the bird

After a successful guiding session, Boran people always leave some comb behind for the bird, advertently or inadvertently, unless they want to force the bird to guide them to another colony. It is considered a terrible sin to kill the bird, and because the bird talks to man, such action is said to be comparable to murder. Bee colonies, the common food source are protected by similarly strong cultural taboos. Even though the bees are stupefied by use of smoke during honey collection, the colony must never be harmed by the fire. In addition, competent honey collectors avoid attacking bees during the wet season because the bees would not have had accumulated enough honey. As this is also breeding season of the bees, such decisions enable the colonies to multiply. At the same time the bird switches to a diet of insects whose abundance has now been increased by the rain while livestock yields more milk for the man. Only naive herdsmen and herdsboys break this seasonal respite for the bees (see below).


The sustainability of the honeyguide-man relationship is dependent on a number of factors. Firstly, there must exist a suitable environment within which bees, the bird and man can interact. Secondly, honey collection must be carried out regularly by the people of the area. Thirdly there must occur sufficient temporal and spatial mobilities in man and the bird which would enhance rates of encounters. Lastly, there must exist cultural practices that facilitate the transmission of indigenous knowledge from one generation to another.

Traditionally, regular honey collection by the Boran people is practised by hunters, professional honey collectors, herdsboys and herdsmen. This takes place in the wild. During their normal daily activities each of these groups travel over great distances, exploring new areas for more resources for themselves and their livestock. This has the effect of frequently bringing the bird and man together. Professional honey collectors harvest honey only during specific periods of the year when the hives contain maximum honey. The other three groups of honey hunters however, attack bees' throughout the year This continuous honey-hunting habit disrupts the bees' cycle of breeding and honey production, and is therefore not sustainable. Honey hunting activities take place during the day when the bird too is active too. The overall effects of sustained but well patterned are the reinforcement of guiding behaviour in the bird and the peoples' transmission of indigenous knowledge concerning honey hunting and the guiding behaviour from one generation to the other.

Factors threatening the future of the honeyguide-human relationship

Our studies show that among the Boran people, all the factors that are essential for the sustenance of the man-bird-bee interactions are undergoing pronounced alterations. The alterations, which are brought about by social, political and economic pressures on Boran people, are detrimental to the symbiotic relationship between the bird and man.

Hunters and gatherers

The traditional game-hunting activities by the Watta hunter-gatherer sub-group of the Boran has been brought to an abrupt end by Government legislation. Similarly, the professional honey collector is being rapidly driven out of his trade by new socio-economic developments. Use honey as tea or coffee sweetener is increasingly being replaced by sugar obtained from trading centres. As medicine, bee products are being replaced by modern drugs which are easily available from hospitals. Local brew which is fermented using honey is now illegal in Kenya. All these have reduced local demand for honey. In addition, a new and more reliable source of honey which has come from artificial beehives, has diminished the traditional honey collector's financial gains and social recognition. Many honey gatherers have emigrated to permanent human settlements to earn their living through other occupations. They no longer have the possibility to recruit their offspring, into their family trade as honey collectors because their children are pursuing modern formal education at a very early age.

Herdsboys and Herdsmen

The same argument applies to the herdsboys and herdsmen. The great numbers of this group and the regularity with which they drive livestock through the bush greatly increases their encounter rates with bees and the bird. Because it was mainly children who looked after domestic animals, herding increased a child's chances of learning about its symbiotic relationship with the bird. Reduction of herding activities, as for example, caused by the enrolment of children into schools, have detrimental effects on this relationship. Interviews conducted among school children in Sololo area, in Marsabit District showed that 86% of all their encounters with the honeyguide occurred during the herding of livestock. Further interviews on whether the subject had ever heard of the bird, seen it, followed it or collected honey showed that the knowledge of children from the larger town of Marsabit was substantially below that of children from the smaller town of Sololo. These results correspond to the percentages that look after animals in the two respective areas during school holidays (Marsabit 33%, Sololo 84%, pers. obs.). It was also shown that in both of the above areas, 11-17 year old children know less than the adults did. Thus, as people mainly learn about the symbiotic relationship during childhood while herding livestock in the company of older persons, it is unlikely that this lag in knowledge will be completely made up for in subsequent years. In the long run, the socio-economic development will reduce the transmission of indigenous knowledge of the honeyguide-man association to the younger generation; perhaps it may even eliminate that traditional knowledge altogether.

Nomadism and settlement

As has been earlier, one of the most important factors in the rate of honeyguide-man encounter is the degree of mobility. The chances of finding bee colonies (and honeyguides) is dependent on the area that a person can cover in a given time. The traditional pastoral nomads cover several kilometres a day in search of water and pasture (12-30 km daily). When this is combined with the movements of honey collectors, game hunters, travellers and livestock rustlers, the surface area covered is very great indeed. But social, economic, and political factors are now working to reduce this mobility by forcing pastoralists to settle down and lead a different and ‘better’ lifestyle. In such settlements, bees can now be tamed and exploited in one's own hives. The hive contents are harvested at opportune times and practically every bee product has a cash value. To reduce bee stings, harvesting usually takes place at night. In all these events, the honeyguide has no role to play and has little to benefit from a bee farmer. And an inexperienced honeyguide may never be able to associate man with bees. This is important, especially if guiding behaviour in the bird is learnt, rather than innate. Sedentary lifestyle brings with it a number of socio-economic problems. In Sololo where this study was conducted, a constant increase in the number of inhabitants and of economic activities over the years have led to an ever-increasing rate of destruction of vegetation. A casualty of this is Terminalia parvula, a hardwood tree that grows to a height of 20 metres. It flowers during the dry season and is one of the preferred species by bees for nesting. Its height and abundance made it the second most favoured tree for sexual displays (singing) by territorial male honeyguides in Sololo during this study. This type of trees was heavily logged for building, firewood, charcoal and making furniture. The recent refugee influx in Sololo (1991-1994) exacerbated the whole situation. Today, most of the trees which existed during my field studies have disappeared, and with them the territorial set-up of male honeyguides which displayed upon them. One irony is that because of the reduced value of their traditional occupation, honey hunters switched to the business of supplying wood products to the settled people. It pays more, is not seasonal, and is certainly less hazardous than tackling African wild bees.


The prevailing socio-economic trends in the semi-arid lands of northern Kenya evidently have detrimental effects on the honeyguide-man relationships. It has been observed by a number of field naturalists that honeyguides in densely populated, permanently settled areas of human habitation do not engage in guiding behaviour. This is essentially because the link between the honeyguide and human beings is not functional. This change of behaviour by the honeyguide has been attributed to the changes in the human behaviour (Qeeney 1952). For instance honeyguides around large Kenyan towns of Nairobi, Naivasha and Nakuru no longer readily guide (pers. obs.). The relationship between man and the honeyguide may soon die out. As adaptable as he is, man has already found himself some substitutes for bee products (food, drugs etc.). In other cases, he has semi-domesticated the bees themselves, and continues to do so on an eve-increasing scale. Economic achievements are sought through other means rather than through sale of honey. Furthermore, pastoralists are increasingly emigrating to town centres in such jobs and better life. As a foraging symbiont, the honeyguide has largely been abandoned and made redundant. The impact of change of lifestyle indigenous people on the long-term survival of a bird who has invested thousands, if not millions of years to evolve and perfect a symbiotic relationship with man is unknown and requires further scientific investigation.


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