Photograph by Jözsef L. Szentpéteri National Geographic October 2008
Bee-eaters, Merops sp., are colorful, small- to medium-size birds that feed on live insects caught in midair. A cousin of the kingfisher, the bee-eater can feed on bees without getting stung because of its inventive methods for handling the bees. After catching a bee, the bird lands on a branch and forces the poison out of the bee's abdomen by beating it and pressing it against the branch or a twig, which sometimes eliminates the stinger too. The dexterity with which it handles prey with its beak is one of the hallmarks of the sleekly shaped bee-eater—it almost seems to play with its food, tossing and catching it again and again. Its diet isn't limited to bees; it also consumes butterflies, dragonflies, moths, termites, and other insects using the same airborne technique.
Most bee-eater family members share a sense of cooperation, and some, such as the European bee-eater and the white-fronted bee-eater, nest in colonies, in tunnel burrows they dig along riverbanks or sand hills with their sharp beaks. When a male loses its mate and young, perhaps to a marauding snake or other predator, it frequently will rejoin its parents or brothers and help feed their new brood. A unique twist on this recruitment of helpers was discovered by Cornell Univerisity ornithologists Stephen T. Emlen and Peter H. Wrege: The male white-fronted bee-eater, Merops bullockoides, sometimes prevents its mature offspring from pairing and breeding in order to have a bigger supply of helpers for its own new chicks.
The bright plumage of the European bee-eater, Merops apiaster, makes a splash. As Bruce Barcott writes in National Geographic, it has "a chestnut crown, black robber's mask, turquoise breast, and throat feathers the hue of ripening wheat." These bee-eaters make an arduous migration in the late summer or early autumn each year, traveling from Spain, the south of France, and Northern Italy to cross the Mediterranean at the Strait of Gibraltar, and then making their way in flocks over the Sahara to their winter grounds in West Africa. M. apiaster also migrates from Hungary and other parts of eastern and central Europe, flying across the Arabian Desert and into southern Africa. Bee-eater specialist C. Hillary Fry estimates that 30 percent of the European bee-eaters perish during migration.
Barcott, Bruce. "Painting the Sky." National Geographic (October 2008), 60-71.
Brooke, Michael. "Bereaved Bee-eaters Turn Nursemaid to the Relatives." New Scientist (May 7, 1994).
Emlen, S. T., and P. H. Wrege. "Parent-offspring Conflict and the Recruitment of Helpers Among Bee-eaters." Nature (Vol. 356, 1992), 331-33.
Fry, C. Hilary. "Bee-eaters." The New Encyclopedia of Birds, ed. Christopher Perrins. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Lessells, C. M., M. I. Avery, and J. R. Krebs. "Nonrandom Dispersal of Kin: Why Do European Bee-eater, Merops apiaster Brothers Nest Close Together?" Behavioral Ecology (Spring 1994), 105-13.
Guillaumot, Jerome. "Bee-Eater Colony."
The Internet Bird Collection. Handbook of the Birds of the World.
Roberson, D. "Bee-eater Family."
Last updated: September 5, 2008