The European bee-eater is typically a monogamous bird, although polygamy has also been observed (9). Each pair excavates a nesting burrow, usually in a vertical earth or sand bank such as a river bank (5) or sand quarry (10), but sometimes in level ground (13). A nesting tunnel typically measures about one metre long and terminates in a nest chamber (12) (13). The female lays four to seven eggs (13), which are incubated for approximately 20 days by both parents (8), and the chicks fledge at about four weeks of age (13). European bee-eaters are one of the few European bird species to have ‘helpers-at-the-nest’ (13); that is, some nests have more than two adults feeding the brood. These ‘helpers’ are generally either sons of one or both of the breeding pair, or brothers of the breeding male, and have usually failed in their own breeding attempt earlier in the year (13).
As its name suggests, the European bee-eater feeds on honey bees, but it also consumes a wide variety of other flying insects, especially larger species like dragonflies, when these are available. It often catches prey by making a short flight from a perch such as a tree, fence or power line. When prey is caught, the European bee-eater usually returns to its perch, against which it will strike the insect’s head several times to kill it (2). The European bee-eater uses a clever way of dealing with stinging insects like bees; after initially hitting the head it wipes the abdomen of the insect on the perch to discharge the sting (5). During the courtship and laying periods, the male fulfils part of the female’s food requirements by bringing her prey (14). After the young have fledged, the parents continue to feed them for a considerable time, as catching insects on the wing is a skill that takes time to learn (4).