News & Views

Coevolution: Guides and Gatherers

A bird-human partnership to hunt honey has co-evolved – a beautiful example of a biocultural interspecies relationship.

By Ken Wilson, Executive Director

There is a bird in Africa called the greater honeyguide that has evolved the ability to guide people to wild bees’ nests in order to share the booty with them. With unique wax-digesting enzymes the bird consumes the honeycomb together with the protein-rich grubs. This bird guides people because although it can easily find bees’ nests, and remember their locations, it cannot get inside without human help (or the help of a honey badger). Honey gatherers, on the other hand, work with the bird because although they are highly skilled (I have watched them track down a nest by finding and aligning flecks of yellow pollen dropped by the homebound bees) they can find more honey more quickly with the help of the birds.

And honey is a fabulous product: it tastes great, stores well, is medicinal and highly tradable, makes delicious mead, is perfect to find and eat whilst on a journey, and the wax can be used in numerous ways. In short, it’s a delicious part of any livelihood, and is central to the lives of many hunter gatherer communities that the Christensen Fund works with in Africa and elsewhere.

The greater honeyguide has evolved a capacity to learn complex guiding behaviour, and a guiding call specific to communicating with humans. In order to track two spatially and temporally distributed resources (humans and bees), the bird has had to give up parental care, so just like a cuckoo, it lays its eggs in the nests of other species, which leaves it mobile. In turn, honey gathering peoples have learned to partner with the bird, developing specific sounds to call it, and developing with it a culture of sharing the bee products.

This wonderful bird-human relationship is an example of the nature of bioculturalism. The boundaries in the Western mind between culture and biology, and what is human and what is Nature, don’t work with the bio-cultural. Interdependence is deep; and in a case like this, both benefit (albeit at the expense of the bees). There’s a genetic component which flows into a learned component, for in different regions people call to the bird with different sounds. This tradition of inter-species language persists and evolves in different communities over time and in unique ways. In some places gatherers even send smoke signals to the birds!

Astonishingly, other species have also learned to decode this language. I’ve seen for myself that the pale chanting goshawk, a desert raptor, is often first on the scene when a honey gatherer starts to call for the bird. The hawk quietly takes up position on a nearby tree and prepares to catch and eat any approaching honeyguide that may be distracted by trying to get the person’s attention. Meanwhile the lesser and the scaly-throated honeyguides (which themselves do not guide) may quietly appear and follow the procession led by the greater honeyguide, seeking part of the spoils. What’s happening here is a kind of co-evolution. It has taken much time, and something very complex and indeed beautiful has been put together through innovation and response. And yet a relationship this rich can be undone all too quickly because even though such co-evolution can be fruitful for both parties, it survives only through transmission from one generation to the next. Where the birds and the people are separated they lose competence, for though the bird is still programmed genetically to guide, and people may still have stories about the bird existing, such co-operation requires practical learned skills, and the system as a whole survives only by its actual performance.

This learned skill of landscape performance requires a teacher. I once lived with a Zimbabwean community that had a great understanding of the nest sites and behaviour of various species of tiny stingless meliponine bees. One of the species, a Trigona of some kind, liked to make its nest in strange patches of clay called zvimhamhare, presumably because these would not get flooded out in the rains. At the entrance to its nest it would make a tiny wax cone to protect it. You could barely see this cone, and following these tiny bees was a very slow way of finding their nests. So in this society there was a tradition of stripping-off and rolling slowly across the patch of clay until you felt the faint smear of this wax cone against your body. You then traced back to find the nest.  Knowing that this was how to find the nest was not sufficient: you had to practise again and again with training from an elder like the late Joseph Magwidi to really know how to do it.

Like much that is biocultural in the world today, honey gathering with the honeyguide is being eroded as new cultural ideas spread about economy and progress. Once common across savannah and woodland peoples throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, active guiding relationships have declined dramatically in recent decades. The honeyguide has had to revert to scavenging wax, hunting insects, or collaborating with the honey badger where that species is still present. The bird has become rarer. Like the ox-pecker that once removed ticks from our livestock now subject to poison by cattle-dipping and spraying, this bird is declining as humans disengage with it.

On the human side, the use of the honeyguide to gather significant quantities of honey has become concentrated among communities that are considered ‘backward’. This is again a common feature of the nature of biocultural diversity: in recent centuries such complex, intimate and sustained relationships are becoming increasingly concentrated among minority and Indigenous peoples.

So, in the face of such loss, what can be done? A crucial and surprisingly little attended-to approach is to ask what the custodians of this tradition – in this case honey gatherers – actually say they need in order to continue. By backing these local efforts on their own terms we count on an amazing amount of passion and knowledge, and we get right to the heart of the problem: namely, why this knowledge and relationship with Nature is not getting transferred to the next generation.

At The Christensen Fund we have the privilege of supporting such a project with Samburu-speaking honey gatherers in Ngurnit in the Ndoto Hills of Northern Kenya. This ‘Dorobo’ group are now a sub-section of a primarily pastoral people and live through hunting and honey-gathering around a stunning mountain that arises from the desert east of Lake Turkana. Daudi Lolmongoi, one of the local stewards of this tradition, explains, “Bees are to us what cattle are to the pastoralist. The milk of ilchangaro [bee grubs] which is fed to our children, especially during dry seasons, is better than cattle milk. It gives the Dorobo good health and strength.”

Each family in the Ndotos has custodianship of a strip of forest land that extends from the lowlands up into the mountains, providing them the full range of ecological zones, and this land is carefully managed and re-allocated at circumcision and marriage. This practice continues even though their home has officially become a government forest, though it is now more difficult for elders to protect their territories since they are not allowed to live within the forest itself and have no legal right to exclude other people from outside who often see it as an exploitable resource.

As a foundation we found a way to support this community through a local ally, Dr. Hussein Adan Isack an ornithologist working with the National Museums of Kenya, and this has encouraged the Dorobo to re-value their tradition and to sustain it and share it with other peoples for whom it was disappearing. Turning typical educational models on their head, this organisation takes elders into the classroom to teach, and children into the forest to learn. Knowledge of the bird is intertwined with knowledge of forest ecology, the stories of caves, and how to light a fire without matches. It’s exciting, and pride surges. As Lepitilin Leulika puts it, “The honeyguide is a brother, mother and friend of the Dorobo. It talks to us. It is like a human being. We do not harm it.” Schoolteachers get excited, too, and education ceases to be about negating Indigenous knowledge. The tradition leaps the generational divide.

Partnerships that occur at community and landscape scale typify the co-evolutionary approach to sustaining biocultural diversity – while being happy. Connecting with Nature should not be seen as a burdensome duty, for happiness also coevolves with bioculturalism.

This article was adapted from a longer piece that originally appeared in the September/October 2008 edition of Resurgence Magazine. Click here to view the original article.

Image by Biodiversity Explorer.