Honeyguide Birds

Honeyguide Birds

Honeyguides (family Indicatoridae) are in the order of Piciformes similar to the transient birds. They are also known as indicator birds or honey birds, although the latter term is also used more specifically to refer to the Prodotiscus species.

They have a tropical distribution in the Old World, with the highest number of species in Africa and two in Asia. These birds are best known for their encounters with humans.

Honeyguides are noted and named for one or two species that will purposely lead humans (but, contrary to common reports, not honey badgers) directly to bee colonies so that they can feast on the grubs and beeswax left behind.

Table of Contents

Scientific classification

  • Domain: Eukaryota
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Piciformes
  • Infraorder: Picoides
  • Family: Indicatoridae
  • Genera: Indicator, Melichneutes, Melignomon, Prodotiscus


Most of the honeyguides are dull-coloured, but some have a bright yellow colour in the plumage. They all have light outer tail feathers that are white in all African species.

Among the few birds that regularly feed on wax—beeswax in most species, and probably waxy secretions of scale insects in the Prodotiscus genus, are to a lesser extent in Melignomon and smaller Indicator species.

They also feed on waxworms, which are larvae of the Waxmoth Galleria mellonella, on bee colonies, and on flying and creeping insects, spiders, and occasional fruits. Mixed-species feeding flocks accompany many animals.


Honeyguides are named for a remarkable habit seen in one or two species: leading humans to bee colonies. If the hive is opened and the honey is taken, the bird feeds on the remaining larvae and wax.

This behaviour is well studied in the larger honeyguide; some authorities (following Friedmann, 1955) note that it also occurs in the scaly-throated honeyguide, while others do not agree.

Wild honeyguides have shown the ability to understand a human call to assist them in finding honey.

Some scientists claim that honeyguide co-evolution with humans dates back to the stone tool that made the human ancestor Homo erectus about 1.9 million years ago.

Despite common belief, there is no proof that honeyguides guide the honey badger; while there are videos about this, there is no evidence.

The Greater Honey Guide (Indicator Indicator) is named for a remarkable skill: leading humans to bee colonies by recognizing the human call to help them. When humans open the hive and the honey is taken, the bird feeds on the remaining larvae and wax.

But just like anything else, the honeyguide, in one of the few mutualistic relationships between humans and a wild, free-range animal, has some redeeming attributes, including one that helps people in particular.

Honeyguides eat wax—one of a handful of birds that can ingest it. The first written account of this unusual feeding activity dates back to 1588 when a Portuguese missionary in Mozambique found a honeyguide nibbling on his candlesticks.

But wax—along with other beehive contents such as bees, honey, bee larvae and pupae, all of which honeyguides like to eat—is a little hard to come by nature, so bee colonies are pretty much your only choice when the wax is a staple in your diet.

But beehives are often notoriously difficult to access—they are often installed in hard-to-reach tree cavities, and the bees themselves sting and swarm. So the honeyguide needs a little help: a smart, fearless partner.

Since time immemorial, humans have been helping honeyguides crack bee colonies. Indigenous people, including the Yao community in Mozambique, have a smoke to soothe the bees and the axes to break open logs.

What the honeyguide has to do is take people to the nest. And this contact between a person and a honeyguide is simpler than you would imagine.

Many birds fear humans, but honeyguides actively pursue humans to attract them across the savannah to the bee colony they know will produce enough honey, comb and bees for both partners.

People in the Yao group are talking to honeyguides with a particular call to let them know when they’re ready to hunt and trust the birds to take them to the nest, often a mile (2 km or so through the forest).


Honeyguide chicks have been known to expel the chicks of their hosts from their nests physically and have needle-shaped hooks on their beaks with which they puncture the host’s eggs or destroy the chicks.

African honey-guide birds are known to lay their eggs in the underground nests of other wax-eating bird species.

Their reproductive technique is to lay an egg in the nest of another bird species (usually kingfishers, bee-eaters, barbets, and starlings), poking holes in all the nesting owners’ eggs while they lay their own eggs.

Honeyguide chicks kill the host’s hatchlings with their needle-sharp beaks right after hatching, just as cuckoo hatchlings do.

The honey-guide mother ensures that her chick hatches first by brooding the egg internally for an extra day before laying so that it has a head start in development relative to the offspring of the hosts.

In this way, the honeyguides end up hoarding all the food that the adopted bird parents bring to the nest.


Males attract females by circling over a female while making drumming sounds with their wings.

After landing near the courted female honeyguide, the male approaches her, spreading his white-edged retrievers, fluttering his wings, and making a low, shrill call.

The mating mechanism is not well established as individuals do not engage in any sort of parental care and do not have an association after the actual mating. 

Greater honeyguides breed between September and October. After mating, females lay their eggs in the nest cavities of other species. The female lay one egg per nest and lay between 4 and 8 per breeding season.

After laying the egg in the host nest, the female will pierce the host’s eggs to ensure the survival of her chicks.


The Indicatoridae contains seventeen species in four genera:

 Genus: Indicator

  •  Spotted honeyguide, I. maculatus
  •  Scaly-throated honeyguide, I. variegatus
  •  Greater honeyguide, I. indicator
  •  Malaysian honeyguide, I. archipelagicus
  •  Lesser honeyguide, I. minor
  •  Thick-billed honeyguide, I. (minor) conirostris
  •  Willcocks’s honeyguide, I. willcocksi
  •  Least honeyguide, I. exilis
  •  Dwarf honeyguide, I. pumilio
  •  Pallid honeyguide, I. meliphilus
  •  Yellow-rumped honeyguide, I. xanthonotus

 Genus: Melichneutes

  •  Lyre-tailed honeyguide, M. robustus

 Genus: Melignomon

  •  Yellow-footed honeyguide, M. eisentrauti
  •  Zenker’s honeyguide, M. zenkeri

 Genus: Prodotiscus

  •  Cassin’s honeybird, P. insignis
  •  Green-backed honeybird, P. zambesiae
  •  Brown-backed honeybird, P. regulus
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