Bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)

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Male bee hummingbird, in breeding plumage
IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened NEAR
THREATENED

Top facts

  • The bee hummingbird is the smallest living bird in the world.
  • Beating its wings 80 times per second in a figure-of-eight pattern, the bee hummingbird can hover and move with great agility.
  • During an intricate courtship display, the wing beats of the bee hummingbird rises to around 200 beats a second.
  • The bee hummingbird eats up to half its body mass in food each day, and consumes up to 8 times its body mass in water.
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Bee hummingbird fact file

Bee hummingbird description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderApodiformes
FamilyTrochilidae
GenusMellisuga (1)

The diminutive bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) has the incredible accolade of being the smallest living bird in the world (4) (5). The male bee hummingbird exhibits extravagant breeding plumage, with iridescent, fiery red-pink feathers on the head and throat, which are elongated around the neck. The rest of the upperparts are bluish-green, and the underside is white-grey, with blue spots on the wing tips and black-tipped tail feathers (2) (4) (6). The brightly coloured feathers are only apparent before and during the breeding season, and are shed shortly after, when they are replaced by more drab plumage (6). The female bee hummingbird is slightly larger than the male, with green upperparts and white tips to the tail feathers, and without the iridescent plumage (2) (4).

Synonyms
Calypte helenae.
Size
Length: 5 - 6 cm (2)
Weight
1.6 - 1.9 g (2)
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Bee hummingbird biology

Despite its tiny size, the bee hummingbird is capable of beating its wings around 80 times a second in a figure-of-eight pattern, giving it the ability to hover and move with astonishing agility. During its intricate courtship display, the number of wing beats can increase to an almost unbelievable 200 times a second (4) (6). The breeding season is typically between March and June, and the female bee hummingbird constructs a tiny cup-shaped nest out of thin twigs, held together by cobwebs and lichens. The female then lays a clutch of 2 tiny eggs, no bigger than 6 millimetres in length, which are incubated for around 22 days. The new chicks are fed and cared for solely by the female, until leaving the nest after 18 days (2) (7).

The bee hummingbird preferentially feeds on nectar, which it obtains from a wide variety of plant species by inserting its bill into the flower of the plant while hovering horizontally above it. It will also eat small insects (2) (4). Because the bee hummingbird is so small, it must consume a large amount to meet its very high energetic demands, typically ingesting up to half its body mass in food each day, and up to eight times its body mass in water (6).

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Bee hummingbird range

Endemic to Cuba, the bee hummingbird has a patchy distribution across the mainland and on the neighbouring Isla de la Juventud (1) (5).

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Bee hummingbird habitat

The bee hummingbird is primarily found within mature forests and at forest edges, where there are plenty of bushes, lianas and epiphytes (2) (5). It is also known to inhabit mountain valleys, swamplands and gardens, and is occasionally recorded in open country (1) (2).

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Bee hummingbird status

The bee hummingbird is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Bee hummingbird threats

The population of the bee hummingbird is declining throughout its range and, although once a widespread and common species, it has now become rare and localised, with an extremely patchy distribution. The primary threat is habitat loss, mainly due to the destruction and fragmentation of native vegetation to give way for agriculture, and the continued expansion of the cacao, coffee and tobacco industries (2) (5).

In the Zapata swamp (an area which is known to support a population of the bee hummingbird), introduced predators such as the mongoose and the rat may also negatively affect the remaining birds (8).

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Bee hummingbird conservation

The bee hummingbird is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in this species should be carefully regulated (1) (2) (5). BirdLife International have proposed several measures to safeguard the remaining populations of the bee hummingbird, including careful monitoring of key populations, enhancing protection of the species within existing protected areas and discouraging clearance of forests for agriculture. They also wish to use the bee hummingbird as a ‘flagship species’, to help highlight the plight of the many species that face declining populations due to habitat loss and destruction (5).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

To find out more about the bee hummingbird and other hummingbird species, see:

To find out more about conservation of bee hummingbird habitat in Cuba, see:

For more information on this and other bird species, see:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Epiphytes
Plants that use another plant, typically a tree, for their physical support, but which do not draw nourishment from it.
Incubated
Kept warm so that development is possible.
Lichen
A composite organism made up of a fungus in a co-operative partnership with an alga. Owing to this partnership, lichens can thrive in harsh environments such as mountaintops and polar regions. Characteristically forms a crust-like or branching growth on rocks or tree trunks.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (1999) Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 5: Barn-Owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. 
  3. CITES (August, 2010)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  5. BirdLife International (August, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/
  6. Birds.com (August, 2010)
    http://www.birds.com/
  7. Shukla, A.N. (2001) Encyclopedia of Birds. Anmol Publications, New Dehli.
  8. BirdLife: EBA Factsheet - Cuba (August, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/ebas/index.html?action=EbaHTMDetails.asp&sid=22&m=0
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Image credit

Male bee hummingbird, in breeding plumage  
Male bee hummingbird, in breeding plumage

© Mike Potts / naturepl.com

Nature Picture Library
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