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the web of life in southern Africa

Indicator indicator (Greater honeyguide) 

Grootheuningwyser [Afrikaans]; Intakobusi (generic term for honeyguide) [Xhosa]; iNgede, iNhlavebizelayo, uNomtsheketshe [Zulu]; Kasoro (generic term for honeyguide/honeybird) [Kwangali]; Tsehlo, Molisa-linotši [South Sotho]; Tshetlo [North Sotho]; Mukaranga, Shezhu, Tsoro [Shona]; Inhlava (generic for honeyguides) [Swazi]; Nhlalala (generic term for honeyguide) [Tsonga]; Tshetlho [Tswana]; Grote honingspeurder [Dutch]; Grand indicateur [French]; Großer honiganzeiger, Schwarzkehl-honiganzeiger [German]; Indicador-grande [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Piciformes > Family: Indicatoridae

Indicator indicator (Greater honeyguide)  Indicator indicator (Greater honeyguide) 

Indicator indicator (Greater honeyguide) 

Top left: Greater honeyguide, West Coast Fossil Park, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo H. Robertson, Iziko ©}

Bottom left: Greater honeyguide, De Hoop Nature Reserve, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]

Greater honeyguide chick, being fed a frog by a Meve's starling. [photo Johann du Preez ©]

The Greater honeyguide occurs from Senegal through the Sahel to Ethiopia, extending south to many areas of southern Africa, where it lives in a wide variety of habitats. It mainly eats bees' products, and is famous for its tendency to lead humans to bees nests. It is a brood parasite, laying in a wide variety of bird nests. The female lays its egg while the hosts is out, destroying any existing eggs already in the nest. The eggs are laid in series of 4-7, each in a different nest, laying about 21 eggs in the whole breeding season. The chicks stays in the nest for roughly 38 days, after which they are fed by the host for 7-30, usually 7-10 days after leaving.

Distribution and habitat

It occurs across sub-Saharan Africa; in southern Africa it occupies Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and the non-arid areas of South Africa. It can survive in a wide range of habitats, such as woodlands, savanna, fynbos, grassland, riverine forest, rarely moving into miombo and Baikaiea plurijuga (Zambezi teak) forests. Its population has recently increased in the Western Cape, probably due to tree planting (see Conservation).

Distribution of Greater honeyguide in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  


It mainly eats the products of bees, such as eggs, larvae and wax, as well as termite alates and other insects. Honeyguides are the only African birds that are able to eat beeswax (a practice known as cerophagy), as they have symbiotic micro-organisms that digest it. Like certain other honeyguides, it guides mammals to bees nests. Interestingly, it is known to only guide humans, although some consider Mellivora capensis (Honey badger) to also be guided, although there is no evidence to support this. It is thought that it might of evolved its guiding ability with the early humans, as there is much folklore surrounding the relationship between humans and the Greater honeyguide, including the myth that it sometimes leads humans to predators. It usually attracts one's attention by chattering loudly, before flying with exaggeratingly undulating flight to a perch about 40 m away. It then watches and awaits for one to come to it, repeating this until it reaches the hive. If it is not followed then it flies back, trying to attract one's attention again. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:

  • Bees and their products
    • eggs
    • larvae
    • wax
  • Other insects



Not threatened, in fact its range in southern Africa has increased recently, due to the establishment of man-made woodland habitats.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.