Unless you were living in an internet-less cave in 2011, you've probably heard of the honey badger (Mellivora capensis). That year, the YouTube video below went viral — it's now been viewed over 100 million times, which is a lot for something that isn't a Beyoncé music video — and its refrain, "honey badger don't care," became the mantra of millions for a while. [Note: Video contains some language that may not be suitable for young or sensitive viewers.] This collage of National Geographic footage showing honey badgers eating snakes with their sharp teeth, running backward and chasing jackals, dubbed over by expletive-laden narration, is so entertaining, Taylor Swift has admitted to being able to recite the entire video by heart.
And although the honey badger has established a lasting place in internet culture because of this three-minute comedy bit, its celebrity makes us think we know more about this strange, solitary animal than we actually do. The truth is, honey badgers aren't well understood because they're extremely difficult to study.
- Honey Badgers Are Nocturnal Foragers
- The Honey Badger Is the "World's Most Fearless Creature"
- Honey Badgers Are Tolerant of Snake Venom
- Honey Badgers Love Beehives
Honey Badgers Are Nocturnal Foragers
"How honey badgers became famous in America is incredible," said Derek van der Merwe with the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, when we talked to him in 2019. "We get so many calls from Americans wanting to come to film them because of the famous YouTube clip. They don't realize how difficult it is to film a honey badger because they're very intelligent, a lot of them forage at night, and they have extremely big home ranges — some of them up to 310 square miles [802 square kilometers]."
Honey badgers, or ratel, as they're often called in some parts of Africa (a word that might be derived from raat, the Dutch word for honeycomb), are fierce mammals more closely related to a weasel, or a member of the weasel family, than a European badger, although they look a bit like a badger with a weird white bowl cut that extends all way down their back. Their diet doesn't actually include very much honey, though their weakness for beehives often gets them in trouble with humans. The honey badger is omnivorous and honey badgers eat all kinds of things. In this respect, the honey badger truly doesn't care whether the thing they're eating is a plant or animal, whether it was dead when they found it, whether their prey is five times bigger than they are or whether they might have to fight seven adult lions off their dinner once they kill it. Snakes make up about a quarter of their diet. The honey badger eats what the honey badger wants to eat and the honey badger's diet is quite varied.
They also don't much care what sort of habitat they hang out in — honey badgers occupy a wide range of habitats, from forests to deserts, but mostly live in dry areas of Africa, the Southwest Asia and India. Male honey badgers have giant ranges of up to 190 square miles (500 square kilometers), which they mark with their signature stink bomb scent and patrol constantly. Female honey badgers have smaller territories of up to 60 square miles (150 square kilometers), and they leave urine notes for male honey badgers at shared latrines when they're ovulating to let them know it's time to meet up.
Honey badgers also don't care very much about other honey badgers — they're solitary creatures, meeting up every so often to mate, but leaving each other alone for the most part, with the exception of mothers caring for young.
The Honey Badger Is the "World's Most Fearless Creature"
Honey badgers are intelligent because they have to be. In the wild they will kill and eat up to 60 different species of animal with their strong claws, from venomous cobras to bee larvae, and in order to have a diet with this impressive range, honey badgers not only need to have problem-solving skills, they have to be some of the most adaptable creatures in the animal kingdom in the way they solve problems. The honey badger regularly needs to be able to dig, climb, squeeze themselves in and out of tight spots with a flattened body and solve new puzzles in order to survive — they have even been observed using tools to get what they want, which is a hallmark of uniquely intelligent animals like primates.
Honey badgers have become synonymous with unhinged aggression and ferocity — Guinness World Records has named them "World's Most Fearless Creature" — and particularly tenacious professional athletes sometimes earn "honey badger" as a nickname. The honey badger's reputation is for being nearly indestructible, but the truth is, they're short (about 11 inches [28 centimeters] at shoulder height) and not very fast, so they're sometimes attacked and killed by other animals and larger predators. However, the honey badger's skin is very tough and they have strong legs and 1.5 inch (4 centimeter) claws that can crack open a tortoise shell. So, for a honey badger, the best form of defense from larger predators is attack.
"The honey badger's thick skin is loose — so loose, in fact, that they can almost turn around completely within it," said van der Merwe. "If an animal bites the honey badger on the back, it can turn right around and bite the animal right back with its sharp teeth. They have long claws on their front feet and strong legs that they use for digging, but which they use for fighting as well. Inexperienced predators — a young leopard, lion or hyena, for instance — might try to attack a honey badger once, but they'll never try it again after the first time."
Honey Badgers Are Tolerant of Snake Venom
Honey badgers often tangle with venomous snakes, but one misconception is that honey badgers are naturally immune to venom. While it's true that the honey badger, a member of the weasel family, eats a lot of venomous animals, their immunity needs to be developed over time. How honey badgers acquire this immunity is not well studied or understood, but mother honey badgers spend a long time raising each pup (14-18 months), and as the honey badger baby grows, its mom slowly introduces it to venomous animals, starting with the mildest scorpion and moving up the venom ladder until the youngster is eating cobras and puff adders.
Scientists have studied why the honey badger is so tolerant to snake venom because their tolerance might give us some keys to creating more effective antivenoms to treat people who have been bitten by snakes. It seems the honey badger and its ancestors built up a resistance to these compounds on a molecular level over generations. For instance, one neurotoxin found in cobra venom fits into a special receptor in you or I that would really mess up our day — it would basically shut down our respiratory muscles. In a honey badger, this receptor has mutated to the point that the neurotoxins just can't fit into that receptor anymore — like a round peg in a square hole.
Another thing we get wrong about honey badgers is that we think they have some sort of weapon like porcupine quills or that they're like skunks — that they spray a strong, unpleasant-smelling liquid at their attackers to gross them out (and away). It's true that the honey badger stores a revolting-smelling substance in their anal pouch, and honey badgers occasionally release it when they're in a life-threatening situation, but they don't weaponize it in the way skunks do.
"Often, when we find dead honey badgers, they've been stung to death by bees and have released this substance — it smells absolutely terrible," said van der Merwe. "It's not something you ever want to get on yourself because you will never get it off."
In fact, this anal glad secretion can be detected by a normal person's nose from up to 130 feet (40 meters) away. Some researchers have suggested that the substance has a calming effect on bees.
Honey Badgers Love Beehives
Be this as it may, the honey badger can't get enough of beehives, but while they can endure many, many bee stings, ransacking a hive is a potentially deadly hobby for a variety of reasons. For starters, bees can be dangerous, but also humans can be dangerous. When honey badgers were first described in South Africa, they were often found in bee's nests, apparently feeding on honey (hence, the common name), but it turns out the honey badger was really interested in the bee brood — the nutritious bee larvae found in honeycomb.
"In South Africa, the honey badger was listed as near threatened in the early 2000s," said van der Merwe. "Beekeepers were killing them because they were causing hundreds of thousands [of dollars] worth of damage to the beekeeping industry, breaking into hives for the bee larvae that honey badgers eat. Not only do they destroy the hive itself, the beekeeper loses honey and the swarm of bees — it's actually quite a lot of money. Some badgers just learned to just live off sacking beehives, and they were being persecuted for it."
But over the past two decades, the relationship between badger and human has gotten better:
"What we did in South Africa is start raising the hives off the ground by 1.1 meters [3.6 feet], or strapping them together or to tires on the ground. This prevents the honey badgers rolling the hives, which is how they access them," said van der Merwe. "In the early 2000s, half the beekeepers we surveyed admitted to deliberately killing honey badgers because they were costing them so much money. Since we've come up with these methods for preventing the badgers from accessing the hives and the bee larvae found in them, beekeepers are no longer killing them, and we've noticed an increase in numbers and in range in some areas. They've since been downgraded to a species of least concern."
Which is great news, because even though they've got terrible personalities, honey badgers are good for the ecosystems they live in. Because the honey badger isn't as fast as other predators, they'll dig rodents out of burrows, providing food for birds of prey and jackals, which often follow a honey badger around, waiting to catch the honey badger's prey, or tidbits like leftover bee larvae.
It's OK, though — the honey badger don't care.
Now That's Interesting
According to van der Merwe, honey badgers have never been observed mating, but one male honey badger will usually mate with about 10 females within his home range until the honey badger's kicked out by another male.
Originally Published: May 22, 2019