The greater honeyguide is about 20 cm long and weighs about 50 g. Like all African honeyguides, it has bold white patches on the sides of the tail. The male has dark grey-brown upperparts and white underparts, with a black throat. The wings are streaked whitish, and there is a yellow shoulder patch. The bill is pink. The female is duller and lacks the black throat. Her bill is blackish. Immature birds are very distinctive, having olive-brown upperparts with a white rump and yellow throat and upper breast.
Habitat and Distribution
The greater honeyguide is a resident breeder in sub-Saharan Africa. It is found in a variety of habitats that have trees, especially dry open woodland, but not in the West African jungle.
The greater honeyguide feeds primarily on the contents of bee colonies (?hives?): bee eggs, larvae and pupae; waxworms; and beeswax. (Honeyguides are among the few birds that can digest wax.) It frequently associates with other honeyguides at hives; immatures dominate adults, and immatures of this species dominate all others. Like other honeyguides, the greater honeyguide enters hives while the bees are torpid in the early morning, feeds at abandoned hives (African bees desert more often than those of the temperate zones), and scavenges at hives robbed by people or other large animals, notably the ratel or honey badger. Most remarkably, it also guides people to hives.
In addition to being a predator of insects and a mutualist with its follower species, the greater honeyguide is a brood parasite. It lays white eggs in series of 3 to 7, for a total of 10 to 20 in a year. Each egg is laid in a different nest of a bird of another species, including some woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodhoopoes, starlings, and large swallows. All the species parasitized nest in holes, covered nests, or deep cup nests. The chick has a membranous hook on the bill that it uses, while still blind and featherless, to kill the host's young outright or by repeated wounds.