Published: October 2008
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

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.

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.

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.