The extraordinary lengths chimps go for honey

By Alfie Shaw

Winnie-the-Pooh doesn't love honey as much as these chimps.

An adult chimp holding a twig, with a baby chimp on its back
Chimps are experts at using tools to get food. © BBC NHU
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While you might think you have a sweet tooth, the lengths that you will go to for a sugary snack probably won’t match those undertaken by a chimpanzee. And it's this love of honey that proved hazardous for the Dynasties crew filming chimpanzees in Senegal.

Their main source of sugar is honey, which they extract directly from beehives. The ingenuity that goes into stealing this honey highlights the intelligence and adaptability that chimpanzees apply to tasks.

Chimpanzees utilise tools in their quest for honey, all of which are fashioned out of sticks. However, a 2009 study in the Flexible and Persistent Tool-using Strategies in Honey-gathering by Wild Chimpanzees found that the number and range of tools they use varies from region to region. Chimpanzees in central Africa will use anywhere between two to five tools whereas chimpanzees in east Africa will only use one or two tools. It is worth noting that these tools are not used in harmony with each other, but one after the other. There is some evidence to suggest that the use of tools is subjected to a specific sequence - smash open, then extract - particularly among groups of chimpanzees that use lots of tools.

Chimpanzees use tools similar to ‘honey dips’ to help them drink water
Chimpanzees use tools similar to ‘honey dips’ to help them drink water like straws. © Jurgen & Christine Sohns | Getty

The ‘honey dip’ tool is used universally, which is a stick with one end chewed till it is soft to make them more absorbent. Other tools commonly used are probes, levers and prys. These tools are stored between campaigns and fresh are only made when their predecessors are lost or broken.

The central chimpanzee subspecies (found in central Africa) are the only group to pound beehives with clubs. They have been observed to spend most of the day hitting the hive, with one chimp having hit the hive over 100 times until it opened. Desire for honey is so strong it has lead chimpanzees to risk their lives. They will climb and hang from trees at such a height that any fall would be fatal.

Honey isn’t just a desirable snack, but is also used to supplement their diet when food is scarce. In 2015, a study on whether honey is a fallback food for wild chimpanzees found that when fruit supplies, which makes up around 50% of their diet, are running low, chimpanzees do eat more honey to compensate. However, since the volume of honey that is extracted is very small and only 52% of chimpanzee honey raids are successful, it cannot completely compensate the shortfall in their diet.

While chimpanzees will go to great lengths to obtain honey, they are clever enough to know that some hives aren’t worth the risk. If a hive has been visited by a honey badger, then a chimpanzee won’t disturb the hive. This has nothing to do with the hive itself, the chimpanzee is just minimising the risks of meeting a honey badger as they are vicious fighters. It’s not only honey badgers that chimpanzees try to not to enrage, but also the bees themselves. They are able to distinguish between the different types of bees and adapt accordingly. When going up against stingless bees, chimpanzees get up close and deploy short honey dips. When trying to take the honey of the aggressive African honeybee, the tools used are a lot longer. This is done to mitigate the risk of being attacked.