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Honeyguide Symbolism & Meaning (+ Totem, Spirit, & Omens)

Lesser Honeyguide

The honeyguide is a very special bird. This is because it has a unique and fascinating strategy for obtaining its favorite meal. Honeyguides like to eat beeswax as well as the fat white grubs which are the larval form of bees. Unfortunately for these African songbirds, the juiciest treasure troves of wax and grubs are often concealed within the trunks of baobabs and the other massive trees which dot the landscape of Africa. To address this, honeyguides have formed an unlikely partnership with one of the fiercest predators who roams the savannah: human beings.

There are a few honeyguide species in Asia and there are many species which do not engage in this behavior, but all honeyguides are named for their tendency to cooperate with humans in pursuit of bee hives filled with honey, wax, and grubs. In certain regions of Africa, some tribes may rely on honey for ten percent of their diet or even more. Amongst these people, the honeyguide is an essential ally. (1)

In a practice thought to date as far back as two million years, during the time of humanity’s more ape-like ancestors, hunters call out to honeyguides using a variety of different sounds passed down through generations. In different regions, the sounds used will vary. Wild honeyguides know that this sound means food, so they will appear and lead their human partners to a nearby hive. From there, the humans can break into the tree cavity where the hive is hidden. Without the honeyguide it would be very difficult to locate such well hidden hives. Thanks to this partnerships, the hunters get their honey and honeyguides get the wax and grubs that humans discard. (2)

So, the humble little honeyguide may be one of the oldest and most remarkable relationships between humanity and the natural world. Predictably, folklore and tall tales featuring honeyguides are fairly common. To learn about these stories or about the honeyguides role in your life, read on!

On this page
Honeyguide Symbolism and Meaning
Honeyguide African Symbolism
Honeyguide Christianity Symbolism
Honeyguide in Dreams
Honeyguide Encounters and Omens
Honeyguide Mythology and Folklore
    African Mythology:
Honeyguide Spirit Animal
Honeyguide Totem Animal
Honeyguide Power Animal
Honeyguide Tattoo Meaning

Honeyguide Symbolism and Meaning

The honeyguide’s incredible relationship with human beings and other animals is the source of most of its symbolic associations.

Because honeyguides are known to lead humans to bee hives to retrieve honey, these clever little songbirds represent cooperation and reciprocity. The symbiotic relationship between humans and honeyguides also reminds us of our place in nature. That is, this relationship demonstrates that our role should be as allies to the natural world. (3)

The honeyguide is a genius when it comes to finding hidden hives. So, honeyguides may represent lost things and the importance of finding them! It is normal to feel lost from time to time. I suspect that everyone experiences this feeling form time to time. In this respect, the honeyguide represents hope. Lost things can always be found again.

Some honeyguide species use a reproductive strategy known as “brood parasitism.” Like cuckoos or cowbirds, honeyguides may lay their eggs in the nest of another bird to be cared for by the parent birds who constructed it. Honeyguide chicks of certain species even hatch with specialized hooks on their bills for the purpose of disposing of their foster siblings. Brood parasitism may seem brutal or cruel, but it is just one of many different survival strategies that different birds have adapted to survive. Honeyguides and other brood parasites are not good or bad. Such concepts are not useful for birds. Still, in human contexts, the honeyguide may represent greed, manipulation, or abandonment. (4)

Because honeyguides happily do their portion of the work when it comes to hunting down bee hives, the honeyguide may represent hard work, humility, and industriousness.

Bee hive
Photo by Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

Finally, the incredible and impressive honeyguide seems to be capable of some form of communication or understanding where humans are concerned. In various regions across Africa, different sounds are used to call honeyguides. Honeyguides who did not learn this behavior from their parents, because of the aforementioned brood parasitism, still seem to know what these sounds mean. Even though the sounds are vastly different across regions, honeyguides still fearlessly answer the call of human hunters because they somehow understand that the following interaction will lead to some tasty honey and bee larvae. So, the honeyguide represents intelligence, communication, intuition, and courage. (5)

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Honeyguide African Symbolism

In the tribes which rely upon the honeyguide’s assistance, this little bird is an important tool. Some groups, however, interpret the honeyguide as a trickster. Despite its obvious cooperation with humans, these groups may choose not to reward the honeyguide at the end of a honey search because it is believed that the honeyguide will not help humans if it is well fed. To prevent the honeyguide from becoming satisfied enough to abandon its helpful role, hunters from the Hadza tribe will even burn or otherwise destroy the discarded remainders of hives so that the honeyguide cannot eat. (6)

Hunting for honey often involves a lot of physical hazards. Hunters must climb tall trees and brave numerous stings from the bees within the disturbed hives. Honeyguides can represent the wisdom that the greatest prizes in life are usually the result of hard labor. The honeyguide is the ultimate symbol for the rewards that await those who approach tasks with patience, courage, dedication, and endurance. (7)

Honeyguide Christianity Symbolism

In Christian iconography, God is often described as a shepherd leading the “flock” of faithful believers into the kingdom of heaven. When followers face hard times, Christian’s often believe that these difficulties are necessary hurdles which we must face in order to fulfill God’s plan for us and ultimately receive our eternal reward. (8)

In its own way, I think the honeyguide is a very useful allegory from nature which demonstrates this relationship. If one did not understand the honey hidden within the hive, it would seem like the honeyguide leads people to dangerous swarms of stinging insects. The honeyguide, however, does not lead us because it wants us to be stung, but because it wants us to discover the sweet honey within.

Honeyguide in Dreams

A honeyguide in a dream will likely feel like a very obvious sign. Because honeyguides often lead hunters to bee hives, a honeyguide in a dream surely represents some form of guidance.

Lesser Honeyguide
Photo by Derek Keats Under Creative Commons 2.0 License

Honeyguides lead to delicious rewards. They are known to be quite reliable in this respect. Remember, though, that the honeyguide’s reward is often only obtainable after climbing a tall tree and sustaining a few painful bee stings. So, a honeyguide may appear in a dream to remind you that the correct path will not be the easiest one. If you are struggling with the path you are on, the honeyguide may appear in your dreams to comfort you and remind you to stay the course.

Honeyguide Encounters and Omens

A honeyguide encounter will usually represent something very similar to the meaning of a honeyguide dream.

A honeyguide encounter can also be a reminder to connect with nature, or to trust in others. Honeyguides may not seem like much, but they are brave enough to approach humans and reliable enough to find hidden treasures with remarkable accuracy.

If a honeyguide appears to you, it may mean that there is honey nearby and that this delightful little bird would like to recruit you to search for it.

Honeyguide in Mythology & Folklore

Honeyguides are common figures in African myths, however many of these myths are passed down through oral tradition and may not be available to read. Interestingly, depending upon the region, the honeyguide myths may warn hunters to always reward the honeyguide, or it may caution hunters to never do so under any circumstances. Although two groups might both follow honeyguides, their relationships with these birds may be surprisingly different to each other.

One “myth” of sorts surrounding the honeyguide concerns the infamous honey badger. It is often said that honeyguides have a symbiotic relationship with honey badgers that is quite similar to their relationship with humans. Contemporary researchers claim that all evidence of this relationship is either staged or misinterpreted. In the last few years, the once widely accepted relationship between honeyguides and honey badgers has faced increasing skepticism. It is now generally thought of as untrue although many reputable publications still make reference to this mysterious phenomenon. (9)

African Mythology:

One Zulu folktale involves a honeyguide and a man named Gingile. In this legend, Gingile follows a helpful honeyguide until leads him to a very large hive of bees high up within a baobab tree. Although Gingile could not see the hive, he knew that honeyguide’s are very reliable so he began to prepare to climb the tree. To avoid getting stung too badly, Gingile lit a stick on fire so that the smoke would deter the angry bees who would certainly swarm him. Climbing the tall tree was very hard work, and it began to annoy Gingile that the honeyguide was resting comfortably and watching his progress. When Gingile reached the hive, his smoking stick helped protect him, but he still suffered from many stings. Fortunately, though, the hive was one of the biggest he had seen and he was began filling his pouch with delicious honeycomb. When Gingile’s feet touched the ground again, the honeyguide was flitting anxiously nearby, waiting for its share of the grubs and wax it had found. Gingile refused to feed the honeyguide, though, because he felt he had done all of the work. (10)

Days later, Gingile began to crave honey once again. He began calling for the honeyguide and felt his appetite grow when the little bird landed on a nearby branch. As usual, the honeyguide began to lead Gingile across the savannah until the pair reached a very tall tree. Once more, Gingile could not see or hear bees, nut he trusted his guide, prepared himself, and began to climb. As Gingile neared the top he heard a low rumbling. He thought that this sound must be the buzzing of the hive, although it sounded far different from usual. As the sound grew louder Gingile readied his stick. Then, a very ornery leopard leapt from her hidden perch and began to swing her mighty paws in Gingile’s direction. Terrified, Gingile dropped from the high trees. Too lazy to pursue him, the leopard went back to her perch with an annoyed flick of her tail. From that day forward, Gingile knew that he must always reward the honeyguide for finding hives for him. Long after Gingile had passed, his descendants still know that the honeyguide should always be rewarded with a large piece of honeycomb bursting with grubs. (11)

One recorded African folktale cautions that honeyguides should only be followed if they are headed in an eastern direction. According to this story, the children, and eventually the wife, of a great hero ignored this advice and followed a honeyguide which led them to the west. When they came upon the tree which the honeyguide had led them to, an ogre emerged and swallowed all of them. It was not until their hero father captured the ogre that the family was rescued. (12)

Honeyguide Spirit Animal

The honeyguide spirit animal embodies a lot of really unique virtues. People with this spirit animal tend to have a very strong intuition and will often choose the correct path innately. In addition, the honeyguide spirit animal is especially gifted in the area of cooperation. People with this spirit animal are talented leaders and mediators who know how to find the best compromise in almost any situation.

Bee hive in tree
Photo by Jacinto Diego on Unsplash

People with the honeyguide spirit animal are sociable and extraverted, which allows them to become fast friends with nearly everyone they meet. Despite their tendency toward friendliness, people with the honeyguide spirit animal may grow vengeful when their kindness is taken for granted.

Honeyguide Totem Animal

The honeyguide totem animal is associated with courage and intelligence. The honeyguide is clever enough to understand that humans can be useful to it, as well as brave enough to put this understanding to use. For a honeyguide, good judgement and quick thinking are not just talents but essential survival tools.

People with the honeyguide totem are often fearless, but may struggle to connect deeply with others. Like the honeyguide which is abandoned at birth in the nest of another bird, people with this totem may have deep-seated abandonment issues and may push others away as a result.

Honeyguide Power Animal

The power that the honeyguide embodies is perception. Honeyguides are famous for their impressive ability to both locate bee hives and communicate their locations across species to guide human hunters. To be able to find hives and identify helpful humans takes a special kind of intuition. People with the honeyguide power animal are incredibly perceptive and spend lots of time observing situations before they act. Due to this perceptive ability, the honeyguide power animal often makes for great confidants and advisors.

Honeyguide Tattoo Meaning

A honeyguide tattoo can represent anything from cooperation and symbiosis to guidance to hard work.

For some, a honeyguide tattoo may represent the “light at the end of the tunnel” with regards to hard work or painful circumstances. The honeyguide reminds us that the best rewards cannot be obtained without a bit of trust and a bit of discomfort.

Conclusion

Humans are thought to have begun domesticating animals between ten and fifteen thousand years ago. (13) How incredible is it, then, that humans and honeyguides may have been working together as far back as nearly two million years?! The relationship between humanity and the honeyguide is thought to be older than homo sapiens and may date back as far as our homo erectus ancestors. (14)

The clever honeyguide reminds us to respect the earth and to collaborate with its creatures, rather than dominating them. Without the honeyguide’s help eons and eons ago, who knows where mankind would be today!

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