It was still dark outside and not at all quiet. Elephant and insect sounds filled the air. Annoying as it sounded, it was a beautiful wake-up call for Dr. Clair Spottiswoode. She got dressed, stepped forward and stared out her window. Her watch read 4 o’clock in the morning. She took a deep breath, grabbed her backpack and stepped out of the door. “Earlier than the birds,” she thought.
Getting up this early has been part of a routine for Dr. Spottiswoode, who has been doing fieldwork since 2016 in Mozambique, a place of work and passion. Within North Mozambique is the Niassa National Reserve, an astonishingly beautiful protected land the size of Denmark where people and wildlife coexist. Wild honey bee’s nests are very common in Niassa’s broadleaved woods and getting honey is an important part of local people’s daily life.
Waiting outside were two of Dr. Spottiswoode’s assistants — honey hunters from Mozambican village.
“Você está pronto?” One of them asked her in Portuguese. “Are you ready?”
These two men were “Yao people”. Their main job is to walk through the landscape and look for wild honey. Yao are well-known for their skilled techniques in subduing bees and getting their rewards.
They jumped into a car. Spottiswoode checked her bag: a laptop, a small telescope, a compass, a marker pen, a notebook, a GPS, a torch, a camera; and of course, her lunch. The road was rugged and the sun hadn’t come up yet.
To realize the sweet dream for the day of finding honey, they first would have to look for a honeyguide — a wild bird that has been cooperating with local Yao people on their honey-hunting trips for hundreds of years. No one has understood quite how, but these creatures seem to have an extraordinary ability to locate honey and guide the Yao people to its source. Unlike domesticated animals such as dogs or cats, these birds have never been trained.
Spottiswoode and the Yao men hiked deep into the woods. From time to time the Yao people made a call: “brr-hm, brr-hm.” Spottiswoode scanned the area, waiting for a response. Suddenly she a melodious voice that sounded like “chicka-chicka.” They saw a brown bird with a red beak, like a small woodpecker, on a nearby branch. It didn’t stay long, though. The moment it saw them, the bird flew swiftly into the bushland, singing “chicka-chicka” again and again.
“Vamos!” says one of her assistants. And they went after it.
Normally she would try to make four honey-hunting trips in the morning. Each trip would last one or two hours, depending on whether honeyguides call them.
“Sometimes you just walk very long and walk back again,” said Spottiswoode. “Sometimes the bird calls you,” and leads you to a bees’ nest.
Once the team locates a nest, they wrap a bundle of dry wood in green leaves, set it on fire and hoist into the tree on a long pole, so that smoke billows alongside the bees’ nest. Once the bees have been subdued, the workers cut down the nest and harvest the honeycombs. Some bee colonies are extremely aggressive and can’t be harvested during the day, even with the help of smoke. In that case, they have to be harvested at night, when it is slightly cooler and the bees are calmer.
During 4 months of trips in the bush, Dr. Spottiswoode conducted 149 honey-hunting trials with her assistants. The key to a successful trip, she explained, is a specific call from Yao honeyhunters to attract the birds, a tradition passed down from their ancestors. Dr. Spottiswoode has built on the pioneering research by the Kenyan ecologist Dr. Hussein Isack, who in the 1980s confirmed that honeyguides communicate with humans, using special calls and behavior to lead honey-hunters to the nests.
Dr. Brain Wood, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, who worked with Dr. Spottiswoode on the honeyguide project said that the songs Yao people sing to the bird “have words that are meant to be gaining the bird’s sympathy.” For example, some of them mean “please come help me” or “I’m very hungry,” according to Wood.
So far, the only comparable relationship in which wild-living animals voluntarily cooperate with humans involves cooperation between artisanal fishermen and free-living dolphins in Laguna, Brazil, which exists as men “calling” dolphins to hunt. By cooperating with humans, dolphins get more fish because human’s net works as a barrier which stopped fish from escaping. Meanwhile, humans get more fish by the hunting of dolphins.
“The honeyguide-human relationship is notable in that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection,” says Spottiswoode. “It’s not through breeding. It’s not through training. It just happens,” And by mentioning “natural selection”, she means that if honeyguides are benefiting by partnering with humans, there is a selective pressure for honeyguides to be good at doing that.