Imvubu Newsletter

Wonders of Nature: The Honey Badger & the Honey Guide

© Kigozi, F. 2002 Imvubu 14:3, 2.

The honey badger, Mellivora capensis, is widespread in Africa and parts of Asia. The generic name, Mellivora is derived from the Latin mel, honey, and voro, to devour, a reference to its fondness for bee hives filled with honey. Its Afrikaans name, ratel, is also sometimes used in English texts. The honey badger, known as icelesi, is revered and held in high esteem by the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape.

A special, mutually beneficial, relationship exists between a small, brown African bird, the honey guide, and the honey badger. Both derive food from bee nests and the bird has no trouble finding these nests, although it can’t get inside them. The ratel, however, has difficulty finding the nests. With its strong claws and muscular jaws, the honey badger can easily rip the hives open to get at the honey. So the bird and the ratel join forces. When the bird discovers a wild bees’ nest, it searches out a ratel and chatters loudly and persistently. The ratel answers by moving toward the bird, replying with chuckling and hissing sounds. The honey guide, Indicator indicator, true to its common and scientific names is leading the way to a sweet treat. On arrival at the nest, the badger breaks into it and begins to feast on the honey and larvae. Its feathered friend patiently awaits its turn at the left overs, beeswax and grubs, which it enjoys.

The honey badger has a very thick and tough skin that is virtually impenetrable to bee stings. Its strong skin is also apparently impervious to dog bites. The animal is tough and aggressive with records of attacks on elephant, buffalo and even humans when threatened. They have small ears that are hardly noticeable except when up close. Thus the popular belief that they do not need sharp hearing to escape enemies, for they have few to fear in the wild. Its distinctive coloration of silver-grey upperparts and black underparts and legs is believed to be a form of warning coloration.