When wax wanes: competitors for beeswax stabilize rather than jeopardize the honeyguide-human mutualism.
Many mutualisms are exploited by third-party species, which benefit without providing anything in return. Exploitation can either destabilize or promote mutualisms, via mechanisms that are highly dependent on the ecological context. Here we study a remarkable bird-human mutualism, in which wax-eating greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) guide humans (Homo sapiens) to wild bees' nests, in an exchange of knowledge about the location of nests for access to the wax combs inside. We test whether the depletion of wax by mammalian and avian exploiter species either threatens or stabilizes the mutualism. Using camera traps, we monitored feeding visits to wax comb made available following honey harvests. We found that greater honeyguides face competition for wax from conspecifics and nine exploiter species, five of which were not previously known to consume wax. Our results support the hypothesis that heterospecific exploiters stabilize the mutualism, because wax depletion by these competitors probably limits feeding opportunities for conspecific exploiters, favouring the early-arriving individual that guided humans to the bees' nest. These findings highlight the importance of the ecological context of species interactions and provide further evidence for how mutualisms can persist because of, and not in spite of, exploitation by third-party species.
Peer reviewed: True