European honeybees overwinter by hunkering down in the hive, which dries up the bee-eater's main source of food. So, in late summer, the young bee-eater's idyll ends as its clan begins a long, dangerous journey. Massive flocks of bee-eaters from Spain, France, and northern Italy cross the Strait of Gibraltar, on their way over the Sahara to their wintering grounds in West Africa. Bee-eaters from Hungary and other parts of central and eastern Europe cross the Mediterranean Sea and Arabian Desert to winter in southern Africa. "It's an extremely risky stratagem, this migration," says C. Hilary Fry, a British ornithologist who has studied European bee-eaters for more than 45 years. As they converge on the Mediterranean, the birds often find themselves eluding Eleonora's falcons, which prey on migrating songbirds to feed their hatchlings. "At least 30 percent of the birds will be knocked out by predators or other factors before they make it back to Europe the following spring," Fry says.
Once the birds arrive in Africa, the social season kicks into high gear. Male bee-eaters stick with their own clan, while females leave to add their genes to a distant pool. Grass fires sometimes function as mixers, drawing bee-eaters from miles around to feast on the fleeing insects. Spanish-born males meet Italian-born females, Hungarian birds meet Kazakhs, and mates pair up for life. Come April, it's back to Europe. Yearling males return to their natal grounds with new mates. Home is usually a sandstone cliff or sandy riverbank shot through with used burrows, oval tunnels as long as a man's leg and wide as a fist. Not keen to start a family in a soiled nest, bee-eaters will pass up existing burrows and excavate their own. They peck and scrape for up to 20 days straight. By the end of the job they've moved 15 to 26 pounds of soil—more than 80 times their weight—and chipped a sixteenth of an inch off their beaks.