While the rest of us have been confined to our respective countries over the last few months, European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) have been drawing closer to their annual southerly migration. Luckily, international borders don’t matter for birds. As they near the end of their breeding season, they will soon make the perilous journey south where they will arrive in time for spring.
Here are Some Interesting Facts About These Tiny Travelers:
1. How to Spot Them?
European bird identification can be tricky. But amidst the plethora of browns, greys, and subtle color hues, these beauties are easy to spot with their sharp features and richly colored plumage. European bee-eaters are among the most colorful of all the bee-eater birds. They can be identified by their slender form, bright yellow throat, rusty-colored crown, turquoise under-parts, and yellowy backs. The sharp colors starkly contrast against the striking black beak and mask-like eye bands.
European bee-eaters display little sexual dimorphism, so it can be difficult to tell males and females apart. Females are slightly more greenish rather than yellow on their upper-parts. Breeding birds are typically brighter than their non-breeding counterparts to enhance sexual attraction. The juvenile birds are also characteristically duller than breeding adults.
2. European Bee-Eater Migration and Distribution
European bee-eaters have a broad geographical distribution and different migration patterns can be observed between groups.
The Palaearctic migrants breed in Southern Europe and parts of Asia. As the breeding season ends around the latter half of July, they begin their migration south – trading the harsh Northern hemisphere winters for the warm, pleasant summers of Southern Africa. As the weather starts cooling in the Southern hemisphere around April, they make their way back to Europe before the next breeding season.
Meanwhile, the Intra-African migrants breed in Northern and Central Africa, and migrate south, for the splendid South African summers. They too return north as winter approaches in the South. Some resident groups avoid the migration entirely as they have established small breeding populations in South Africa.
3. The Peculiar Diet of Bee-eating Birds
As their name suggests, bees are the preferred dietary staple of these insectivores. But they also relish butterflies, dragonflies, flying ants, and even wasps!
You’re probably wondering how they avoid getting stung. After all, what animal eats bees? They happen to have a very interesting hunting approach. They swoop in from an elevated perch and catch their prey in flight. They then fly back to the perch where they repeatedly thrash the insect against a branch or rub it against a twig until the sting is removed. They are also able to regurgitate indigestible parts as pellets.
4. Built for the Kill
As with all bee-catcher birds European bee-eaters are well adapted for their lifestyle. Their long, curved beaks are sharp and perfect for keeping prey in a tight grip. They have sharp claws for perching on trees and on vertical surfaces where they excavate their burrows.
As insect eaters, they have excellent eyesight, which is necessary for precision when catching insects. They are also agile birds, able to move swiftly when hunting. Their wide, somewhat pointy wings and aerodynamic build makes them perfectly suited for long-distance flight.
5. Where Do European Bee-Eaters Live?
They typically nest alongside rivers in the countryside, woodlands, meadows, and even on farmland. In Africa, they can be found in the savannah, forest, shrubland, and grasslands. European bee-eaters often live in arid or semi-arid environments.
6. Did you know?
In some places, European bee-eaters frequent agricultural fields where bee-hives are used for pollination.
7. Nesting and Social Behavior
European bee-eater nests consist of burrows excavated alongside cliff edges, sandbanks, and riverbanks. It can take up to twenty days to complete a burrow. These gregarious birds nest in colonies or single pairs, and often help each other build their nests.
The European bee-eater call may sound like a cacophony of “preeps” as they forage. They tend to be more vocal in colonies. Like all birds, they call to locate and communicate with each other. During courtship, the call takes on a more melodic tune.
European bee-eaters are monogamous birds. Pairs remain together throughout their lifespan. They can live up to six years. The beginning of the breeding season is marked by elaborate courtship rituals with an array of aerial and vocal displays, and even some dance-like movements while on a perch.
Through the medley of color and song, the male also comes bearing gifts of food which he feeds to the female. The female lays up to ten eggs which are incubated by both birds. And after a twenty-day incubation period, the altricial chicks hatch naked and blind. Luckily the mother bird has plenty of help, as her mate and even other members of the colony often pitch in with feeding and care. That is one lucky lady.
9. Threats, Predators, and Pests
There are no known major threats to European bee-eaters. But they are not without predators. They may be killed by raptors such as the black kite (Milvus migrans), and their nests are often raided by snakes and other reptiles.
European bee-eaters are prone to parasites due to nesting in burrows. Because of this, they need to preen, bath, and clean themselves often. They also take dust-baths.
10. The Ecological Role of European Bee-Eaters
Aside from adding a touch of color to our lives, these beautiful near passerine birds play an important role as ecosystem engineers, especially in arid regions.
During their nest-burrowing activities, they can remove up to twelve kilograms of soil. This bioturbation has a major effect on the ecosystem as it alters the environment for other species. Nutrients from the removed soil are made available for other organisms. Abandoned burrows are often used by other species for nesting, roosting, and shelter.
We have certainly come a long way in our understanding of these attractive birds. Bee-eaters were mentioned throughout history in myth and legend. And they were often persecuted.
Today we understand their value and appreciate the role they play in nature. And we commend them as they make their way across the globe and continue their cycle of life.
Raeesah Chandlay is a South African conservationist. She’s always had deep respect and appreciation for wildlife and nature, and a special fascination for birds. She has a diploma in nature conservation and spent a year working with wattled cranes under the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme during her internship. When she is not in the field, she enjoys writing to share her passion, knowledge, and experiences with others.