These birds help humans hunt for honey—but it’s not as sweet as you might think

Plus other weird things we learned this week.

The greater honeyguide is a sub-Saharan bird that literally guides humans to sources of honey. CLAIRE SPOTTISWOODE/University of Cambridge/AFP via Getty Images

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

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FACT: These birds help humans hunt for honey, but it’s not as sweet as you might think

By Rachel Feltman

The greater honeyguide is a sub-Saharan bird that engages in a behavior that’s so fascinating to people that its entire genus and its entire family is named for it, even though they’re the only species in the bunch that definitely acts this way.

These birds literally guide humans to sources of honey. Humans call to the birds for help, the birds recognize the request and start leading the way, and the humans follow them straight to a big honeycomb. Hunter-gatherers are almost six-times more likely to find hives with a honeyguide assist than they are without

The people in question are The Hadza of Northern Tanzania. Even if you don’t recognize their name, you’ve almost certainly heard of or read research about them. If you’ve read an article about, for example, how eating a modern diet versus a traditional hunter-gatherer diet changes our microbiome, it was almost certainly based on research on the Hadza. 

Speaking of research on Hadza diets: Scientists have found that honey makes up a surprisingly large percentage of their caloric intake. It can make up around 20% of the calories they consume. 

That’s where the honeyguide bird comes in with a big assist. Some researchers estimate that up to 10% of the Hadza’s total diet is foraged with the help of these birds.

Incredible, right? But a lot of popular media on the subject takes things a little too far in the Disney Princess direction.

A lot of depictions of this process—including some documentaries—suggest that this is a mutually-beneficial partnership between birds and humans. Humans ask for help, birds provide it, and humans pay the animals for their services with chunks of honeycomb full of wax and grubs for them to eat. 

But as this feature in Atlas Obscura by Cara Giaimo explains, that isn’t quite true—and the sunnier portrayal of this relationship can cause trouble for the Hadza. Check out the article—and this week’s episode—for more on the (still very awesome) truth behind the misinformation. 

FACT: A barber may have come close to launching a massive revolt—until the Civil War got in the way

By Joel Cook

On this week’s episode of The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, I’m sharing one of my favorite stories from my own show, Rogue History. It’s the story of a traveling barber named Moses Dickson. This jack-of-all-trades (seriously, he opened a fine dining restaurant at one point) may have laid the groundwork for a major insurrection. Dickson claimed to have recruited a vast network of enslaved people and free allies who were gearing up to revolt against their oppressors. He said the only reason it didn’t happen was that the Civil War started brewing, and he figured he’d let actual armies do the legwork instead. 

That might sound like a convenient claim for some random barber to make, but there’s some evidence that Dickson really had been about to light the fuse on a huge insurrection. Learn more in this week’s episode. You can also check out the Rogue History episode that inspired this fact.

FACT: Rats love taking selfies, too 

By Sara Kiley Watson

What’s not to love about a selfie? Millions are taken every single day, though the reasons why we snap so many pics of ourselves are still up in the air. Some folks guess it’s for vanity, but research has also shown that capturing a quick selfie can help us remember deeper meanings of those day-to-day events or big moments. 

One recent project from a Paris-based professional photographer and grad student shows that humans might not be the only animals that love a cheeky self-portrait. 

A Skinner box-inspired experiment showed that rats got a kick out of pressing a button that snapped selfies. They also enjoyed viewing the resulting images—even if they weren’t lured by a treat to do so. Of course, the psychological significance of rat selfies is still a mystery, and we’ll need to do a lot more research to truly understand our shared love of self-portraits (and/or button-pushing). But in the meantime, the photos produced by these curious little critters are still cute as can be. You can see them here