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The evolution, ecology and conservation of honeyguide-human mutualism

This project focuses on a unique mutualism: the foraging partnership between Greater Honeyguides Indicator indicator and human honey-hunters whom they guide to bees’ nests. Honeyguides know where bees’ nests are located and like to eat beeswax; humans know how to subdue the bees using fire, and open nests using axes. By working together, the two species can overcome the bees’ defences, with benefits to both. Remarkably, this relationship has evolved through natural selection, rather than through training or domestication. The honeyguide-human system provides a wonderful opportunity to study the ecology and evolution of mutualisms in nature, because human and honeyguide populations vary strikingly in how they interact, and we can readily manipulate these interactions.

Together with her team at the Fitz and the University of Cambridge, Claire Spottiswoode has been studying human-honeyguide interactions in the Niassa National Reserve of northern Mozambique since 2013, collaborating with the honey-hunting community of Mbamba village, and receiving crucial support from the Mariri Environmental Centre led by Dr Colleen and Keith Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project. A key focus to date has been investigating reciprocal communication between the two parties: not only do honeyguides signal to humans, but in many different cultures humans signal back to honeyguides, giving special calls to attract honeyguides and maintain their attention while following them. The Yao honey-hunters of northern Mozambique give a loud trill followed by a grunt: “brrrr-hm!”. A 2016 experiment showed that honeyguides were twice as likely to initiate a cooperative interaction with humans who made this sound compared to humans giving control sounds, and three times as likely to lead such humans to honey. So honeyguides use these specialised signals to choose partners who are likely to be good collaborators.

Supported by a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council, we now ask whether learning is involved in maintaining a geographical mosaic of honeyguide adaptation to local human cultures; how such reciprocal communication between humans and honeyguides mediates their interactions; what the effects of cultural co-extinctions may be on each partner and their ecosystems; and ultimately, how quickly such cultures can be re-ignited following their loss. In so doing we hope to test the hypothesis that reciprocal learning can give rise to matching cultural traits between interacting species. Understanding the role of such phenotypic plasticity is crucial to explain how and why the outcome of species interactions varies in space and time, and to predict how they will respond to a rapidly changing world.

Our project, known as ‘Projecto Sego’ (sego is greater honeyguide in the Yao language), has the support of the community and traditional chiefs of the Mbamba and Nkuti Villages. We depend on the local community to collect data and assist with our field sampling and experiments.

Activities in 2020

  • While COVID-19 meant that the UCT/Cambridge research team were unable to travel to Mozambique for fieldwork, our team of 20 honey-hunters continued to collect excellent data on their interactions with honeyguides throughout 2020.
  • CB MSc student Eliupendo Alaitetei Laltaika carried out a very successful 3-month period of data collection in northern Tanzania for his CB project.
  • We launched our citizen science project,,managed by post-doc Jessica van der Wal, welcoming all records of Greater Honeyguides from anywhere in Africa. These will enable us to map the current extent of guiding behaviour, to track it over time, and help to shed light on how honeyguides acquire their ability to engage with humans.
  • In early March, just before the COVID lockdown, we met in Cape Town for a ‘sego summit’ to plan our next research steps. The workshop happened during the week of the Fitz AGM, when Jessica, David Lloyd-Jones and Dominic Cram all shared their work with UCT colleagues.
  • The research team spent most of 2020 focussed primarily on data analysis and writing, drafting several manuscripts and preparing conference presentations.


  • Eliupendo Alaitetei Laltaika explored the honey-hunting culture of four coexisting human cultural groups in the Ngorongoro region who all rely heavily on honey: the Maasai, Ndorobo, Hazdabe and Sonjo people.
  • In addition to our new citizen science project, we launched our project website and have a social media presence @honeyguiding on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
  • Post-docs Jessica van der Wal and Dominic Cram presented their research findings at the Study of Animal Behaviour Virtual Winter Meeting.
  • Claire and Jessica, together with Fitz colleagues Chima Nwaogu and Gabriel Jamie, carried out pilot fieldwork at Honeywood Farm near Grootvadersbosch Forest in the Western Cape, South Africa. It was thrilling to see and to capture so many honeyguides so close to our home base.

Impact of the project

This project involves rural communities in understanding a unique human-animal relationship. We hope to further our understanding of how mutualisms evolve, and specifically how learnt traits mediating mutualisms may coevolve. Understanding the evolution of mutualisms sheds light on the mechanisms that can maintain cooperation among unrelated individuals. It is also important for effective conservation because mutualisms can have a wide reach in ecological communities. The honeyguide-human mutualism has disappeared from large parts of Africa, as the continent develops. It would be a tragedy if it vanished altogether before we fully understood this part of our own evolutionary history.

Key co-supporters
European Research Council; National Geographic Society; Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology; DSI-NRF CoE grant; British Ecological Society; Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour; American Ornithological Society.

Research team 2020

Prof. Claire Spottiswoode (FIAO, UCT / U. Cambridge)
Dr Jessica van der Wal (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Dominic Cram (U. Cambridge)
Dr Brian Wood (U. California, Los Angeles)
Prof. Timm Hoffman (Biological Sciences, UCT)
Dr Colleen Begg (Niassa Carnivore Project)
Keith Begg (Niassa Carnivore Project)

Students: David Lloyd-Jones (MSc, UCT); Eliupendo Alaitetei Laltaika (CB MSc, UCT).

Research Assistants: Musaji Muemede, Carvalho Issa Nanguar, Iahaia Buanachique, and Seliano Alberto Rucunua, with data collection by many others.