AdobeStock (Created by Candice Gaukel Andrews)

Many Native American communities belong to a clan which identifies with an animal, such as a bear, deer, eagle or wolf. Kinship and clan membership are often visually represented on totem poles. For example, some Kwakwaka’wakw families of northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, belong to the Thunderbird Clan and feature a thunderbird and familial legends on their poles.

Many Native American communities belong to a clan that identifies with an animal, such as a bear, eagle or turtle. Such four-legged, winged or swimming family members are considered brothers and sisters. Several play major roles in creation stories, and conversations between them and people flow freely. These nonhuman clan members can also be messengers to the ancestors and the Creator, and they are teachers on this world.

Western science, which once denigrated such notions, is finally catching up with this truth. We now know that in parts of Africa, people communicate with a wild bird—the greater honeyguide—to locate bee colonies and harvest their stores of beeswax and honey. The birds can even distinguish and learn distinct dialects to help people locate the insects’ whereabouts. But are honeyguides now also sharing their knowledge with honey badgers, demonstrating that interspecies communication is not as rare as we thought?

In other parts of the world, however, our esteem for bees and what they provide isn’t as apparent. In fact, a new study has found that air pollution is preventing pollinators from finding flowers because it degrades the plants’ scents—and that could affect our food stability worldwide.


Greater honeyguides are widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa. They favor large open areas, including forest edges, riversides, savannas and shrublands. The birds are not domesticated, and no one trains them.

Cooperation: birds and humans team up to obtain honey

There’s a story that goes like this: the honeyguide bird loves beeswax. Unfortunately, however, the honeyguide needs help breaking open bees’ nests to get it. So, the birds show honey badgers the way to the nests, who then rip them open. Together, they share the rewards.

But is this story true? Scientists say it’s well-established that honeyguides lead humans to bees’ nests. In communities across many African countries, the honeyguide has been used for generations for this purpose. The honeyguides call to the humans, and the humans call back in a kind of “conversation” as they move through the landscape toward their joint goal.

In a fascinating study that was published in the journal Science in December 2023, it was even demonstrated that honeyguide birds can learn several dialects that are traditionally used by different honey-hunting communities. In Tanzania among the Hadza people, a honey-hunter announces a desire to partner with the bird by whistling. In Mozambique, however, Yao honey-hunters do so with a trilled “Brr!,” followed by a guttural “hmm!” In audio playback experiments, honeyguides in both communities were exposed to both the Hadza and Yao sets of prerecorded sounds. This enabled the researchers to test whether honeyguides had learned to recognize and prefer the specialized signals that their local honey-hunters used—or were innately attracted to all such signals.


Northern Tanzania is home to the Hadza, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth. They live on what they find: baobab fruits, berries, game, tubers and honey. To attract honeyguide birds, the Hadza whistle. The birds then flutter down and chatter, leading the way to bee nests.

The honeyguides in Tanzania were over three times more likely to cooperate when hearing the calls of local Hadza people than the calls of “foreign” Yao. The honeyguides in Mozambique were almost twice as likely to cooperate when hearing the local Yao call, compared to the “foreign” Hadza whistles.

These differences in honeyguide-attracting signals make practical sense. While honey-hunting, both the Hadza and Yao encounter mammals, but only the Hadza hunt them, using bows and arrows. The Hadza’s hunting might explain the less conspicuous whistles they use; they can evade being detected by their prey because their whistles sound like birds. Conversely, the guttural trill-grunts the Yao use to communicate with honeyguides can help scare off animals they find dangerous.

In Tanzania, the Hadza people benefit greatly from this relationship. Honeyguides increase Hadza hunter-gatherers’ rates of finding bee nests by 560% and lead them to significantly higher-yielding nests than those found without honeyguides. In fact, 8% to 10% of the Hadza’s diet is acquired with the help of honeyguides. Wild honey provides high-energy calories, and the honeycomb wax that hunters share or discard is a valuable food for the honeyguides.

Adobe Stock (Created by Candice Gaukel Andrews)

Wild honey is a high-energy food that makes up almost 10% of the Hadza diet. The honeycomb wax that hunters share or discard is a valuable food for the honeyguide birds who help them find it.

Partnership: birds and honey badgers associate to procure provisions

Could honeyguide birds have the same sort of relationship with honey badgers? While anecdotally they do, scientific evidence for bird/honey badger cooperation is patchy. It tends to be old, secondhand accounts of someone saying what his or her friend saw. So, in the first large-scale search for proof of the interaction, a team of researchers from nine African countries, led by researchers at England’s University of Cambridge and South Africa’s University of Cape Town, conducted nearly 400 interviews with honey-hunters across Africa. People in the 11 communities surveyed have searched for wild honey for generations, including with the help of honeyguide birds.

Most of those surveyed were doubtful that honeyguide birds and honey badgers work together to access honey, and the majority (80%) had never seen the two species interact. But the responses from three communities in Tanzania stood out, where many people said they’d seen honeyguide birds and honey badgers cooperating to get honey and beeswax from bees’ nests. Sightings were most common among the Hadza honey-hunters, of which 61% said they had seen the interaction.

Because Hadza hunter-gatherers move quietly through their homelands on the edge of the Serengeti Plains—in the shadow of Ngorongoro Crater and in the shade of ancient baobab trees—while hunting animals with bows and arrows, they are poised to observe badgers and honeyguides without disturbing them. That could be why more than half of these hunters reported witnessing such interactions, on a few rare occasions.


In Kenya, the greater honeyguide is featured on a stamp. Human/honeyguide mutualism is a great example of a positive human/wildlife interaction that shows how community-based conservation can work.

The researchers reconstructed step-by-step what must happen for honeyguide birds and honey badgers to cooperate in this way. Some steps, such as the bird seeing and approaching the badger, are highly plausible. Others, such as the honeyguide chattering to the badger and the badger following it to a bee’s nest, remain questionable.

Badgers have bad eyesight and poor hearing, which isn’t ideal for following a noisy honeyguide bird. The researchers say perhaps only some Tanzanian populations of honey badgers have developed the knowledge and skills needed to cooperate with honeyguide birds, and they pass these proficiencies down from one generation to the next. It’s also possible that birds and honey badgers do cooperate in more places in Africa but simply haven’t been seen.

Confounding firsthand observations is the effect of human presence. Witnesses can’t know for sure who the honeyguide bird is talking to: them or the badger. But, say the researchers, we should take these interviews at face value. Members of three communities report having seen honeyguide birds and honey badgers collaborating, and it’s probably no coincidence that they’re all in Tanzania.


Although they may not look like it, honey badgers are one of Africa’s most ferocious animals. When threatened, they have been known to attack buffalo, lions and even humans. The animals feed on a wide variety of foods, including eggs, fruit, grubs, insects, reptiles and—of course—honey.

With our control of fire and tools, humans are useful partners for honeyguide birds. We can smoke the bees and cut down trees to subdue them before opening their nests. Honey badgers are more likely to make the bees angry, and aggressive bees sometimes sting the birds to death.

Because honeyguide birds have been around far longer than modern humans, some have speculated that the birds’ guiding behaviors might have evolved through interactions with honey badgers. Then, when we came on the scene, the birds switched to working with us because of our superior skills in overcoming the bees and accessing their nests.

It’s an intriguing idea, but hard to test, state the scientists, whose report was published in the Journal of Zoology in June 2023. They conclude by highlighting the need for more scientists to engage with relevant communities and learn from their observations and views, and to integrate scientific and cultural knowledge to accelerate and enrich research.


Tanzania in East Africa is known for its vast wilderness areas, including the plains of Serengeti National Park—which is populated by the “big five” (buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos)—and Kilimanjaro National Park, home to Africa’s highest mountain.

Separation: bees and plants disentangle due to air pollution

Sadly, the bees that we all depend on are in trouble. In research that was published in the journal Environmental Pollution in November 2023, it was reported that ozone substantially changes the scents and sizes of floral odor plumes given off by flowers, reducing honeybees’ ability to recognize scents by up to 90% from just a few feet away.

Ground-level ozone typically forms when nitrogen oxide emissions from industrial processes and vehicles react with volatile organic compounds emitted from vegetation in the presence of sunlight. Unfortunately, changes in floral scents due to ground-level ozone is causing pollinators to struggle to carry out their crucial role in the natural environment, with implications for food security.

International research has already established that ozone has a negative impact on food production because it damages plant growth. More than 75% of our food crops and nearly 90% of wild flowering plants depend, to some extent, upon animal pollination, particularly by insects. Therefore, say this report’s authors, understanding what adversely affects pollination and how it does so is essential for preserving the critical services that we reply upon for the production of biofuels, food, medicines and textiles.


The findings of one recent study suggest that ozone is having a negative impact on crop yields and wildflower abundance. Due to ground-level ozone, pollinators are struggling to carry out their crucial roles in nature, with implications for food security.

Pollinating insects use floral odors to find flowers and learn to associate their unique blend of chemical compounds with the amount of nectar they provide, allowing them to locate the same species in the future. Researchers at England’s University of Surrey used a 98-foot wind tunnel to monitor how the shape and size of odor plumes changed in the presence of ozone. Honeybees were trained to recognize an odor blend and then were exposed to a new, ozone-modified odor.

As well as decreasing the size of the odor plumes, scientists found that ozone caused the plume scents to change substantially as certain compounds reacted away much faster than others. Towards the center of the plumes, 52% of honeybees recognized an odor at 19 feet, which decreased to 38% at 29 feet. At the edge of plumes, which degraded more quickly, 32% of honeybees recognized a flower from 19 feet away but just 10% could from 39 feet away.

Ozone could also be affecting the insects’ other odor-controlled behaviors, such as attracting a mate.


We are all kin and share in the fate of our planet, humans and nonhumans alike—domestic or wild.

Relationships: connections to kin

It’s always heartwarming to discover two different animal species who are cooperating for mutual benefit. But when one of those species is Homo sapiens, you can’t help but be proud and captivated by such a Disneyesque tale. It’s rare.

Knowing that we’re just beginning to understand our true kinship with other animals and that we can, in truth, communicate with them for our mutual benefit gives me hope for the future of this planet. Finding such deep connections with our wild-animal brothers and sisters should make us all the more eager to mitigate the detrimental impacts we humans have had on our planet’s natural systems.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,