The Honey Badger is a fierce fighter, with very distinctive colouring which serves as a warning to adversaries, and very few get in its way. South Africans have a saying, "so taai soos a ratel", meaning, "as tough as a Honey Badger"; and tough they are indeed. In the Kalahari and other areas its main diet includes the highly venomous Cobras, Mambas and Puff-adders. Researchers have witnessed the remarkable recovery of a Honey Badger from a potentially lethal Puff-adder bite and they have been observed killing mambas, dragging them out of holes and devouring them with complete unconcern! It will attack any animal, no matter how big or dangerous its adversary. There appears to be no natural predators on adult ratels, which itself is evidence of how formidable this animal is, for it weighs scarcely more than a medium-sized dog. Lion and Leopards have been recorded killing Honey Badgers but it is likely that they were old or sick animals. In one case, a fully grown Leopard took two hours and much effort to eventually kill an old toothless Badger!
The Honey Badger’s courage is backed up by knifelike claws on its front feet which are 3,5 cm in length; sharp teeth and exceptionally tough and thick skin, almost 6mm thick at the neck. Its extremely loose skin enable it to turn around and bite, even when its opponent has it by the scruff of the neck. Its coat has been described as “hog-like,” coarse and sparse, dark in color, with a skunk’ish, gray stripe from the forehead to the tail. It is broad and powerful, with stout, sturdy legs. A pair of anal glands can emit a profuse, unpleasant secretion, although they are more often used to mark out territory than in combat. Another item of the animal's defence equipment is its thick, coarse guard hair. This and the thick skin are invaluable when the honey badger invades a beehive to feed on both the honey and the grubs.
Its genus name, Mellivora, is derived from "honey eater", its favored food during the rainy season. The honey badger has a relationship with a small bird, the honeyguide, which leads it to honey with excited, chattering displays. The bird benefits when the badger breaks open the hive, enabling it to feast on the tasty grubs and wax. The Honey Badger is the only animal other than man that regularly accepts the bird’s invitation. The basis of the partnership is the Honeyguide’s craving for wax and the Ratel’s fondness for bee larvae and honey. Neither is dependent on the other for survival, or even to find or gain admittance to hives.
The ratels probably find more nests with less effort with the help of the bird; and the Honeyguide finds many nests inaccessible without the assistance of the Honey Badger.
When a Greater Honeyguide sees a potential follower, in this case, a Ratel, it approaches within 10-15m and begins calling. Churring constantly, the drab bird fans its tail, displaying the white outer feathers. It swoops from tree to tree, until it alights near a hive and waits for the follower to find the bee’s nest. According to witnesses, a Ratel in pursuit of a Honeyguide will answer it with a grunting, growling sound or a "slight sibilant hissing and chuckling". The Ratel supposedly uses its protruding anal glands to fumigate bees and other biting insects before attacking their nests, in the same way a human will use smoke to subdue bees before harvesting honey. Backing up to the opening of the hive, the Ratel will rub its anal pouch all around, swirling its tail, sometimes performing handstands while releasing a profuse secretion with a suffocating odour. Beekeepers have described a sharp smell and found bees stupefied at one end of the hive after a ratel attack. Others have reported finding a number of dead bees. Its appetites have put it in conflict with African beekeepers, resulting in an initiative to promote understanding and tolerance between the two.