Published: October 2008

Bee-eaters

Flying bee-eater

Painting the Sky

A brilliant blur as it plucks a butterfly from the air, the European bee-eater leads a colorful life on three continents.

By Bruce Barcott
Photograph by Jözsef L. Szentpéteri

Some birds were made for poems. Keats had his nightingale, Poe his raven. The European bee-eater's life is more like an epic novel, sprawling across continents, teeming with familial intrigue, theft, danger, chicanery, and flamboyant beauty.

The bee-eater darts across the sky in a gaudy patchwork suit: a chestnut crown, black robber's mask, turquoise breast, and throat feathers the hue of ripening wheat. Just the outfit for a bird that refuses to play it safe.

True to their name, bee-eaters eat bees (though they'll prey on dragonflies, moths, termites, butterflies—just about anything that flies). When the bird chases a bee, it flies like a heat-seeking missile, matching its prey's every twist and swoop. After a midair snatch, the bee-eater returns to its perch to de-venom the bee. It's a brutally efficient operation. Grasping the bee in its beak, the bird bashes the insect's head on one side of the branch, then rubs its abdomen on the other. The rubbing causes the stunned, sometimes headless bee to flush its toxins.

It's a good life, growing up as a European bee-eater (Merops apiaster). The vast majority form clans that raise young in the spring and summer in a wide swath from Spain to Kazakhstan (a smaller group lives mainly in South Africa). Farmland, fields, and river valleys provide a bounty of insect hatches. Flocks of bee-eaters follow tractors as they churn up croplands. When they come upon a hive, the birds gorge themselves—a researcher once found a hundred bees in the stomach of a bee-eater near a hive. Some beekeepers are apt to shoot the birds, viewing them as profit-killing pests.

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