Range:

Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, and India

Habitat:

Grasslands, forest, desert, and mountains

Honey (badger), Is that you?

The honey badger is part of the weasel family, related to skunks, otters, ferrets, and other badgers. Its proper name is ratel, but it gets the common name honey badger from what seems to be its favorite food: honey. Yet what the animal is actually looking to eat are the bee larvae found in the honey!

A badger or a skunk?

This tough little critter has a stocky, flattened body with short, strong legs, along with long claws on the front feet for digging and defense. The honey badger's hair is thick and coarse, mostly black, with a wide gray-white stripe that stretches across its back from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.

Does it remind you of a skunk? The honey badger also has a gland at the base of its tail that stores a stinky liquid just as powerful as that of its look-alike. The smelly stuff is used to mark territory, but if the honey badger is frightened or threatened, it drops a “stink bomb” rather than spraying the odor like its skunk relative does. The honey badger's odor doesn’t last long, like that of a skunk’s, but it still gets its message across: “Leave me alone!”

The honey badger's skin is so thick that it can withstand bee stings, porcupine quills, and even dog bites!
• Honey badgers seem to be resistant to bee stings and snake venom.

When the San Diego Zoo received its first pair of honey badgers, a subspecies called the Vernay’s ratel, in 1998, a new challenge awaited the keepers. While they were aware of the housing and nutritional needs of this species, the animals’ aggressiveness was a challenge. However, the opportunity to work with a new species in a collection is one of the rewards of being a keeper, and our keepers were eager to learn as much as possible.

The animals spent a good deal of time in a nest box during the day, coming out at night to investigate their new home, so keepers didn’t see much of them. Imagine their surprise when a newborn honey badger was found in the nest box on January 11, 1999! Apparently, the female had been about halfway through her pregnancy when she arrived in San Diego. Hers was the first birth of a Vernay’s ratel in the Western Hemisphere. Over the years, we’ve had nine more babies born here.

Currently the Zoo and the Safari Park each has one female honey badger. Cookie can be seen in the Zoo’s Africa Rocks zone. At the Park is Benzy, born at the Zoo in 2008. Her name is an Afrikaans slang word that means crazy. We mean that affectionately, of course—Benzy is a trained animal ambassador, and her trainers say she is crazy busy and crazy smart! She was raised by her mother, Honey, but socialized with people until she moved to the Park at three months of age.

Honey badgers are considered endangered in parts of their range, due largely to human encroachment, which reduces their food supply. The animal’s sweet tooth does not make it popular with people who raise bees for their honey. Some beekeepers kill any honey badgers they see just to protect their beehives. However, since honey badgers can’t jump, many beekeepers have found that simply securing the beehives a few feet higher off the ground discourages honey badgers from climbing up to reach them and keeps the bees and their honey safe. Many beekeepers in Africa are now producing “badger-friendly honey”—it’s a sweet deal for all!