Who honeys the guides?
February 17, 2016 6:08 PM   Subscribe

"When Hadza want to find honey, they shout and whistle a special tune. If a honeyguide is around, it’ll fly into the camp, chattering and fanning out its feathers. The Hadza, now on the hunt, chase it, grabbing their axes and torches and shouting “Wait!” They follow the honeyguide until it lands near its payload spot, pinpoint the correct tree, smoke out the bees, hack it open, and free the sweet combs from the nest. The honeyguide stays and watches. It’s one of those stories that sounds like a fable—until you get to the end, where the lesson normally goes. Then it becomes a bit more confusing."
posted by ChuraChura (14 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe that bird just really, really, hates those muthafookin' bees. Maybe those bees killed her family, we don't know. Maybe schadenfreude is a thing in the bird world. Lord knows it sure is in the hooman one.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 6:53 PM on February 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I remember seeing the segment on honeyguides in Human Planet, and being surprised--and thinking it must be more complicated than the feel-good mutualism they portrayed. Thanks for the article! I always enjoy your posts.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:57 PM on February 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

But we all know intermittent reinforcement achieves higher rates of compliance than consistent reinforcement.....so it could just be that, rather than Taken - the Birdening. Cool, in any case.
posted by Gyre,Gimble,Wabe, Esq. at 6:57 PM on February 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

Cool article. Thanks!
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 7:00 PM on February 17, 2016

I should give a hat tip to my grandpa, who sent this article to me!
posted by ChuraChura at 7:45 PM on February 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

The birds probably get more honey than trained pigs get to eat truffles they find.
posted by 445supermag at 8:02 PM on February 17, 2016

I remember seeing the segment on honeyguides in Human Planet, and being surprised--and thinking it must be more complicated than the feel-good mutualism they portrayed. Thanks for the article!

Yeah, that "feel good mutualism," it becomes a lot less feel good and a lot less mutual when learning of how evolution has lead the honeyguide to this:

"One by one, three bee-eater chicks hatch in their underground nest, and they are all about to die. There is a fourth chick in with them, but it is no bee-eater. It is a greater honeyguide, a different species that was laid in the nest and mistakenly incubated by the bee-eater parents. Having hatched a few days ago, it has been lying in wait for its foster siblings. As each emerges in turn, the honeyguide attacks it with vicious spikes on its bill. Completely blind, it is literally stabbing in the dark but it makes up for its imprecision with brutality. Within minutes of entering the world, the other chicks are dead."


You all realize it would have been so much easier and less haunting had Darwin just chosen theology instead of science.
posted by uraniumwilly at 8:17 PM on February 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

I think he made the right choice.
posted by biogeo at 9:20 PM on February 17, 2016 [9 favorites]

Interesting, but the article to me doesn't offer quite enough evidence for the thesis it is trying to make - also to some degree trying to do what it accuses "naturefakers" of doing, shoehorning a narrative. Not saying it's wrong, but without offering a truly convincing explanation of even the very example it tries to build its case on, it kind of leaves me wondering.
posted by blue shadows at 9:30 PM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The crazy, nasty ass honeyguide don't give a fuck.
posted by Grangousier at 10:08 PM on February 17, 2016

"When Hadza want to find honey, they shout and whistle a special tune. If a honeyguide is around, it’ll fly into the camp, chattering and fanning out its feathers. ..."

I'd guess that the special tune the Hadza whistle has essential features in common with the vocalizations of the bee-eater, because given that the honeyguide is a nest parasite of the bee-eater, it would make a lot of sense for them to be attracted by bee-eater song.

And it would also make sense for the honeyguide, once it had located bee-eaters, to guide them to the bees, because not only would the honeyguide have a better chance of getting honey and grubs while the bee-eaters were attacking those bees, any food that the bee-eaters got would make them more likely to lay eggs and give the honeyguide the opportunity to lay its eggs.

So human beings are in this case parasitizing the parasite by imitating its host and taking advantage of its instinctual response to that imitation, very much as the honeyguide is taking advantage of the bee-eaters' instinctual response to a nestling in their nest, whether it's theirs or not.

But honeyguides may or may not be entirely dependent on either bee-eaters or humans to be able to get food from bees -- I would say probably not -- but they are very probably entirely dependent on bee-eaters to be able to reproduce; which means that there is no danger the honeyguide will stop guiding the Hadza to the bees no matter how selfish and ungrateful the Hazda may be, because the main driver behind the evolution of the behavior looks to be a lot more powerful than the need for a quick meal.

But it seems to me that there's room in the honeyguide/bee-eater relationship for a degree of mutualism that's absent in the human/honeyguide relationship, because there's always the chance the honeyguide egg won't hatch, or the bee-eaters might occasionally be able to stop the honeyguide chick from killing their nestlings, or they may be able to recognize the egg as alien and destroy it sometimes, or a given honeyguide might guide many more bee-eaters to the bees than it is able to parasitize, etc. And on balance, in some such cases, the honeyguide could actually be a net positive for the bee-eaters.
posted by jamjam at 12:55 AM on February 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Metafilter: human beings are... parasitizing the parasite
posted by sammyo at 5:47 AM on February 18, 2016

Though throwing a bunch of lemmings into the sea is objectively terrible, naturefaking seems pretty low on the world’s hierarchy of bad deeds. But pull off the same type of fake enough times, some experts say, and the consequences can become more virulent. In his influential work “The Trouble With Wilderness,” environmentalist William Cronon argues that the predominant Western idea of nature as a sacred and untouched space is itself an enormous myth, forged from an alliance between European romanticism and the American drive toward the frontier. “We too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires,” he writes. Such mythologizing blinds us to both actual nature and to those desires, and prevents us from engaging properly with either. It encourages environmentalists to seek an impossible future, he says, in the form of a return to a nonexistent past.

Supply-side environmentalism also has implications for the touched spaces, as written-off by exclusion, or belonging to a contamination zone.
posted by Brian B. at 6:49 AM on February 18, 2016

I recently hung out with some of these guys to write an article for The Nature Conservancy. The one time we found honey there was no bird involved - they know where a bunch of trees are and basically "farm" them, wait until the comb is ready to harvest.

Then they light a fire at the base of the tree, wait until all the bees are out and swarming and then reach in and scoop out the honeycomb. (They've been stung so many times the effects are minimized, though there's still a lot of yelping; you or I would be left comatose.)

That stuff is tasty. Didn't try the larvae though - that's where the protein is.
posted by gottabefunky at 7:24 AM on February 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

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