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 91 million times, which is a lot for something that isn’t a Justin Bieber 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, running backwards 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.
They’re Nocturnal Foragers
“How honey badgers became famous in America is incredible,” says Derek van der Merwe with the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa. “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 500 square kilometers [310 square miles].”
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 more closely related to a weasel than a European badger, and they actually don’t eat honey, though their weakness for beehives often gets them in trouble with humans. They live in a wide range of habitats, from forests to deserts, but mostly hang out in dry area in Africa, the Southwest Asia and India.
“World’s Most Fearless Creature”
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. They have a reputation 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 bigger predators. But for a honey badger, the best form of defense is attack.
“Their thick skin is loose — so loose, in fact, that they can almost turn around completely within it,” says van der Merwe. “If an animal bites the honey badger on the back, it can turn right around and bite the animal right back. They have long claws on their front feet 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 and Snake Venom
Honey badgers often tangle with venomous snakes, but one misconception is that are naturally immune to venom. While it’s true they eat 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 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.
Another thing we get wrong about honey badgers is that we think they’re like skunks — that they spray a strong, unpleasant-smelling liquid at their attackers to gross them out (and away). It’s true they store a revolting-smelling substance in their anal pouch, and they 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,” says van der Merwe. “It’s not something you ever want to get on yourself because you will never get it off.”
Honey Badgers and Bees
Honey badgers can’t get enough of beehives, even though ransacking them is a potentially deadly hobby for a variety of reasons. When honey badgers were first described in South Africa, they were often found in bees nests, apparently feeding on honey (hence, the common name), but it turns out they were really interested in the bee brood — the nutritious larvae found in honey comb.
“In South Africa, the honey badger was listed as near threatened in the early 2000s,” says 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. 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 bee hives, 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,” says 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, 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 ecosystems they live in. Because they’re not 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.
It’s okay, though — the honey badger don’t care.
Learn more about honey badgers in “Honey Badger Don’t Care” by Randall Randall. MBL picks related titles based on books we think you’ll like. Should you choose to buy one, we’ll receive a portion of the sale.