European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

Also known as: bee-eater
  
French: Guêpier d'Europe
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderCoraciiformes
FamilyMeropidae
GenusMerops (1)
SizeLength: 25 - 29 cm (2)
Wingspan: 36 - 40 cm (2)
Weight55 g (3) (4)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The European bee-eater is an incredibly colourful bird with an unmistakable appearance. In breeding plumage, it has a rich chestnut crown that blends into gold on its back. The forehead is white, the throat is yellow bordered by black, and the underparts are blue (3). Male European bee-eaters have a chestnut-coloured patch in the middle of the wing, while in females this patch is usually smaller or even absent. Occasionally, females may also be distinguished from the males by having a green back. The wings and backs of juvenile European bee-eaters are entirely green, and the eyes are brown, in contrast to the bright red eyes of adults (3). The call of the European bee-eater sounds like a rolling ‘prrt’ (5).

The European bee-eater has a range spanning an incredible 11 million square kilometres (6). It breeds in Europe, mostly in the warmer southern parts, but occasionally as far north as Sweden and Finland (2) (7), and also in parts of Africa and southern-central Asia (8). The majority of the population migrates to spend winter in sub-Saharan Africa (4), but it may also overwinter in India (8).

The European bee-eater prefers open landscapes with sheltered valleys that have grassy, marshy terrain with few trees (7).

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).

Despite not being currently considered threatened with extinction (1), the European bee-eater still faces some threats. Among these, habitat change, including agricultural intensification, may lead to a decrease in the abundance of large flying insects and the loss of nesting sites (11). For example, the Arava region of Israel is one of the European bee-eater’s ‘stop-over sites’, a place where it stops during migration to refuel, ready for the next stage of the journey. However, since the early 1950s, agricultural settlements have been established in this region which has disturbed the water balance of the area and therefore the flora and fauna (15), resulting in a decrease in food availability for the European bee-eater. Consequently, it must spend longer looking for food to refuel before continuing its journey, delaying arrival at the breeding grounds and possibly resulting in an unsuccessful breeding year (16). In addition, bee-keepers see bee-eaters as a pest and have killed them in their thousands (10).

The European bee-eater is protected by the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a convention which aims to conserve wild fauna and flora and their natural habitats (17), and also by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) which aims to conserve migratory species by encouraging international co-operation and the development of cross-country agreements (18).

Authenticated (02/09/10) by Dr Kate Lessells, Senior Research Scientist, Netherlands Institute of Ecology,
http://www.nioo.knaw.nl/users/klessells

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Avibirds European Birdguide Online (October, 2009)
    http://www.avibirds.com/euhtml/Bee-Eater.html
  3. Cramp, S. (1985) Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Volume 4: Terns to Woodpeckers. Oxford University Press, OXford.
  4. Lessells, C.M. and Ovenden, G.N. (1989) Heritability of wing length and weight in European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster). Condor, 91: 210-214.
  5. Couzens, D. (2005) Birds: A Complete Guide to all British and European Species. Collins, United Kingdom.
  6. BirdLife International (November, 2009)
    http://www.birdlife.org
  7. Huntley, B., Green, R.E., Collingham, Y.C. and Willis, S.G. (2007) A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds. Durham University, The RSPB and Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  8. Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: Profiles of Birds Occurring in Britain and Ireland. BTO Research Report 407, BTO, Thetford. Available at:
    http://blx1.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob8400.htm
  9. Avery, M.I., Krebs, J.R., and Hegner, R.E. (1984) A case of bigamy in the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster). The Auk, 101: 609-610.
  10. BirdGuides (October, 2009)
    http://www.birdguides.com/species
  11. Lessells, K. (2010) Pers. comm.
  12. Ar, A. and Piontkewitz, Y. (1992) Nest ventilation explains gas composition in the nest-chamber of the European bee-eater. Respiration Physiology, 87: 407-418.
  13. Lessells, C.M. (1990) Helping at the nest in European bee-eaters: who helps and why? In: Blondel, J., Gosler, A., Lebreton, J.D. and McCleery, R. (Eds.) Population Biology of Passerine Birds, an Integrated Approach. NATO ASI series, Springer-Verlag, Germany.
  14. Avery, M.I., Krebs, J.R. and Houston, A.I. (1988) Economics of courtship-feeding in the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster). Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology. 23: 61-67.
  15. Yosef, R., Markovets, M., Mitchell, L. and Tryjanowski, P. (2006) Body condition as a determinant for stopover in bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) on spring migration in the Arava Valley, southern Israel. Journal of Arid Environments, 64: 401-411.
  16. Schaub, M. and Jenni, L. (2000) Fuel deposition of three passerine bird species along the migration route. Oecologia, 122: 306-317.
  17. Council of Europe (November, 2009)
    http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/nature/Bern/default_en.asp
  18. CMS (November, 2009)
    http://www.cms.int