Animals

Honeyguides

by Marcia Malory

Honeyguides, also known as honeybirds or indicator birds, belong to the family Indicatoridae.

They are members of the order Piciformes.

Honeyguides eat beeswax. They get their name from the fact that some species of  honeyguides guide human beings to bees' nests. The birds fly toward the bees' nests, crying and hissing while flapping their wings.

They continually turn around to ensure that they are being followed.

Wahlberg's honeyguide or brown-backed honeybird; photo by Alan MansonAfter the person reaches the bees' nest and breaks it open to get the honey, the bird eats the beeswax.

Some people say that they have seen honeyguides lead honey badgers, or ratels, to bees' nests, so that the honey badgers can break open the bees' nests for them.

Bacteria in the honeyguide's digestive system help the bird to digest the beeswax.

Honeyguides have very thick skin, which helps to protect them from bee stings. However, dead honeyguides that have been stung by hundreds of bees have been found beneath bees' nests. Often, bees sting honeyguides around their eyes.

The diet of a honeyguide may also include insects and larvae - including bees, bee larvae and waxworms (a type of caterpillar) that it find in bees' nests - as well as spiders and fruit.

Honeyguides live in southern Asia, including Malaysia, and in Africa south of the Sahara.

They tend to be about 10 inches long, with dull gray or olive feathers. They have light-colored feathers on the outsides of their tails.

Brood Parasites

Honeyguides are brood parasites or nest parasites.

This means that they lay their eggs in nests built by other birds - often woodpeckers or barbets - and depend on those other birds to incubate the eggs and to feed and care for the chicks after they hatch.

The female honeyguide usually lays about one egg a day over a period of about a week. She places each egg in a different nest, which was built by "host parents".

The honeyguide must lay her eggs so that they hatch at the same time that the eggs that were lain by the host parents, so that the host parents don't toss the honeyguide eggs out of the nest.

When the honeybird chicks hatch, they use hooks on their beaks to kill the host parents' chicks and to break open any of the host parents' eggs that haven't already hatched. The honeybird chicks then eat the food that the host parents bring to the nest.