European bee-eater

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European bee-eater
Guepier d'europe au parc national Ichkeul.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Coraciiformes
Family: Meropidae
Genus: Merops
M. apiaster
Binomial name
Merops apiaster
Merops apiaster en.png
Distribution of the Merops apiaster
Each with a dragonfly

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. This species occurs as a spring overshoot north of its range, with occasional breeding in northwest Europe.

Taxonomy and systematics[edit]

The European bee-eater was formally described by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae under its current binomial name Merops apiaster.[2] The genus name Merops is Ancient Greek for "bee-eater", and apiaster is Latin, also meaning "bee-eater", from apis, "bee".[3]


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. Female tends to have greener rather than gold feathers on shoulders. Non-breeding plumage is much duller and with a blue-green back and no elongated central tail feathers. Juvenile resembles a non-breeding adult, but with less variation in the feather colours. Adults begin to moult in June or July and complete the process by August or September. There is a further moult into breeding plumage in winter in Africa.[4]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]


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.[5] Most males are monogamous, but occasional bigamy has been encountered.[5] Their typical call is a distinctive, mellow, liquid and burry prreee or prruup.

Reported UK breeding attempts[edit]

Eggs of Merops apiaster

European bee-eaters have attempted to nest in Britain on at least 5 occasions:[citation needed]

  • 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.[6]
  • 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.[7]
  • in 2015, two breeding pairs were found at a quarry in Cumbria.[8]
  • in 2017 seven nested at CEMEX quarry East Leake, Nottinghamshire, attracting thousands of bird-watchers.[9][10]


Feeding bee-eater—the female (in front) waits for the male's offering

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.[citation needed]

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.[11] Their impact on bee populations, however, is small. They eat less than 1% of the worker bees in areas where they live.[12]

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."[13]

Predation of honey bees[edit]

Bee-eater colony destroyed by bee-keepers. The entrance into the bee eater's galleries were deliberately blocked with stones

If an apiary is set up close to a bee-eater colony, a larger number of honey bees are eaten because they are more abundant. However, studies show the bee-eaters do not intentionally fly into the apiary, rather they feed on the insects caught on pastures and meadows within a radius of 12 km (7.5 mi) from the colony, this maximum distance being reached only when there is a lack of food. Observations show that the birds actually enter the apiary only in cold and rainy periods, when the bees do not leave the hive and other insect prey are harder for the bee-eaters to detect.[14]

Many bee-keepers believe that the bee-eaters are the main obstacle causing worker bees not to forage, and instead stay inside the hives for much of the day between May and the end of August. However, a study carried out in eucalyptus forest in the Alalous region, 80 km (50 mi) east of Tripoli Libya, showed that the bee-eaters were not the main obstacle of bee foraging, which is the opposite of what beekeepers think. The foraging rate was higher in presence of the birds than in their absence in some cases. The average bird meal consisted of 90.8 % honey bees and 9.2 % beetles.[15]

Predation is more likely when the bees are queening or during peak migrations, from late March till mid-April, and in mid-September. Hives close to or under trees or overhead cables are also at increased risk as the birds pounce on flying insects from these perches.[16]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Merops apiaster". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ Linnaeus, Carl (1758). Systema Naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis (in Latin). Volume 1 (10th ed.). Holmiae:Laurentii Salvii. p. 117. |volume= has extra text (help)
  3. ^ Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 50, 251. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  4. ^ RSPB Handbook of British Birds (2014). UK ISBN 978-1-4729-0647-2.
  5. ^ a b Avery, MI; Krebs, JR; Houston, AI (1988). "Economics of courtship-feeding in the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 23 (2): 61–67. doi:10.1007/BF00299888. S2CID 13553144.
  6. ^ Birdwatch no. 173 p. 23
  7. ^ "Birders flock to see exotic bee-eaters". The Guardian. 2 September 2014. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
  8. ^ "Rare bee-eater birds found nesting in Cumbrian quarry". BBC News. 31 July 2015. Retrieved 3 August 2015.
  9. ^ BBC News
  10. ^ Rare bee-eater nests which attracted thousands of twitchers to Nottinghamshire have failed
  11. ^ Higes, Mariano; Martín-Hernández, Raquel; Garrido-Bailón, Encarna; Botías, Cristina; García-Palencia, Pilar; Meana, Aránzazu (2008). "Regurgitated pellets of Merops apiaster as fomites of infective Nosema ceranae (Microsporidia) spores". Environmental Microbiology. 10 (5): 1374–1379. doi:10.1111/j.1462-2920.2007.01548.x. PMID 18218034.
  12. ^ Roulston, TH; Goodell, K (2011). "The role of resources and risks in regulating wild bee populations". Annual Review of Entomology. 56: 293–312. doi:10.1146/annurev-ento-120709-144802. PMID 20822447.
  13. ^ Judith Goodenough; Betty McGuire; Elizabeth Jakob (2009). Perspectives on Animal Behavior. John Wiley & Sons. p. 268. ISBN 978-0-470-04517-6.
  14. ^ "Prigonirea prigoriei. [Myths and truths about honey bees and bee eaters ]" (in Romanian). Romanian Ornithological Society. Retrieved 2018-06-27.
  15. ^ Alfallah, H.M. "The impact of the Bee-eater Merops apiaster on the behavior of honey bee Apis mellifera L. during foraging" (PDF). Mansoura Journal of Plant Protection and Pathology, 1(12): 1023-1030. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-06-27. Retrieved 2018-06-27.
  16. ^ Carabott, Sarah (2015-10-26). "Bee-eater is not to blame for decline in honey bees". Times of Malta. Valletta. Retrieved 2018-06-27.

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