Nesting season is time for family alliances and intrigue. Members of the Meropidae family, which includes 25 species of bee-eaters, are famously cooperative breeders. In any colony there are apt to be numerous nest helpers—sons or uncles who help feed their father's or brother's chicks. The helpers benefit too: Parents with helpers can provide more food for chicks to continue the family line. The trick, of course, is to recruit helpers. Cornell University biologist Stephen Emlen, who spent nearly a decade studying the behavior of white-fronted bee-eaters, a cousin of the European species that lives in Kenya, found that they often use strong-arm tactics. After digging the burrow, a male bee-eater typically engages in courtship feeding—impressing his mate by bringing her a tasty bee or dragonfly. Emlen and his colleague Peter Wrege watched parents butt into their son's business, begging for the courtship treat or barging in between the mated pair. If that didn't work, a parent might block the entrance to the son's burrow, preventing the female from entering to lay her eggs. After a while some sons succumbed to the pressure, abandoning their own breeding efforts to become helpers at their parents' nests.
European bee-eaters aren't quite as ruthless. They're more likely to find helpers among males whose own nests fail through natural causes. Trickery and theft aren't uncommon, though. "Almost everything naughty you can think of happens in those colonies," says Fry. If a female leaves her burrow to feed, another female may sneak in to lay eggs—a tactic to fool the neighbor into raising a stranger's brood. Similarly, if a male leaves the nest unguarded, other males may seize the opportunity to copulate with his mate. Other bee-eaters occasionally turn to robbery, harassing neighbors who return with food until they drop the insect and the thief can fly away with the goods.
It's a short, spectacular life. A long-lived European bee-eater will survive five years, maybe six. The rigors of migration, dodging falcons along the way, take a toll on every bird. Bee-eaters today also have to contend with the loss of insects to pesticides and the disappearance of breeding sites as rivers are turned into concrete-walled canals. But what a story: bee chases, hive raids, brush fires, nest intrigue, and Gibraltar crossings packed into those years. "Common throughout its range," say the bird guides, but the phrase does this bold, beautiful bird injustice.