The European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) is a near passerine bird in the bee-eater family Meropidae. It breeds in southern Europe and in parts of north Africa and western Asia. It is strongly migratory, wintering in tropical Africa, India and Sri Lanka. This species occurs as a spring overshoot north of its range, with occasional breeding in northwest Europe.
This species, like other bee-eaters, is a richly-coloured, slender bird. It has brown and yellow upper parts, whilst the wings are green and the beak is black. It can reach a length of 27–29 cm (10.6–11.4 in), including the two elongated central tail feathers. Sexes are alike.
This bird breeds in open country in warmer climates. As the name suggests, bee-eaters predominantly eat insects, especially bees, wasps, and hornets. They catch insects in flight, in sorties from an open perch. Before eating a bee, the European bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface. It can eat around 250 bees a day.
The most important prey item in their diet is Hymenoptera, mostly Apis mellifera. A study in Spain found that these comprise 69.4% to 82% of the European bee-eaters' diet. Their impact on bee populations, however, is small. They eat less than 1% of the worker bees in areas where they live.
A study found that European bee-eaters "convert food to body weight more efficiently if they are fed a mixture of bees and dragonflies than if they eat only bees or only dragonflies."
These bee-eaters are gregarious—nesting colonially in sandy banks, preferably near river shores, usually at the beginning of May. They make a relatively long tunnel, in which they lay five to eight spherical white eggs around the beginning of June. Both male and female care for the eggs, which they brood for about three weeks. They also feed and roost communally.
During courtship, the male feeds large items to the female while eating the small ones himself. Most males are monogamous, but occasional bigamy has been encountered. Their typical call is a distinctive, mellow, liquid and burry prreee or prruup.
Reported UK breeding attempts
European bee-eaters have attempted to nest in Britain on at least 5 occasions:
- In 1920, a pair tried to nest in a sand bank of the River Esk at Musselburgh, Scotland. A local gardener captured the female and kept her in a greenhouse. She died two days later, after laying a single egg.
- In 1955, three pairs of bee-eaters nested in Streat sand quarry near Plumpton, East Sussex. The birds were first found on 12 June, though the birds' presence only became widely known at the start of August. One nest was accidentally destroyed by machinery in July, but seven young fledged from the two remaining nests towards the end of August. The RSPB instigated a wardening operation, and over 1,000 people visited the site. The birds remained until 24 September.
- A pair nested at Bishop Middleham Quarry, County Durham in 2002. The birds were first found on 2 June, and within a few days started to undertake courtship feeding and copulation. Five chicks hatched, but one died in the nest, one died before fledging, and a third disappeared and probably died. Durham Wildlife Trust (with RSPB assistance) set up a wardening post when the birds were nesting. They released news to rare bird information services, and the national news media also reported on the birds' presence. Around 15,000 people visited the site during their stay. The adults and both fledged young left on 28 August, flying off high to the south.
- A pair took up residence on farmland adjacent to the River Wye, near Hampton Bishop, Herefordshire in summer 2005. By mid-July, the adults began bringing insect food to the riverbank nest-hole, confirming that eggs had hatched. The RSPB began a wardening operation with public access. Around 2,000 people came to see the birds. However, on the evening of 29 July, foxes predated the nest, and the birds soon left.
- A pair excavated a nest hole at a coastal site in Dorset in 2006, but failed.
- in 2014, two pairs nested in the Isle of Wight, one nest fledged 3 chicks, the other 5. One nest had earlier been discovered and protected but the other was not found until late August.
- in 2015, two breeding pairs were found at a quarry in Cumbria.
- The third series of the sitcom To the Manor Born featured an episode, first aired on 11 August 1981, in which bee-eaters bred at a fictional location in England .
Close-up video of a female European bee-eater
- BirdLife International (2012). "Merops apiaster". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Judith Goodenough; Betty McGuire; Elizabeth Jakob (2009). Perspectives on Animal Behavior. John Wiley & Sons. p. 268. ISBN 978-0-470-04517-6.
- Birdwatch no. 173 p. 23
- The Guardian. "Birders flock to see exotic bee-eaters". http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/02/birders-exotic-bee-eaters-isle-of-wight.
- BBC News. "Rare bee-eater birds found nesting in Cumbrian quarry". http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-33732567.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to European bee-eater.|
|Wikispecies has information related to: Merops apiaster|
- European bee-eater videos, photos & sounds on the Internet Bird Collection
- European bee-eater - Species text in The Atlas of Southern African Birds.
- Audio recordings of European bee-eater on Xeno-canto.
- Oiseaux Photos
- Feathers of European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
- Ageing and sexing (PDF; 5.4 MB) by Javier Blasco-Zumeta & Gerd-Michael Heinze