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THE EUROPEAN BEE-EATER

30 June 2014

www.leopard.tv

The European bee-eater Merops apiaster occurs widely in Africa, central and eastern Europe and Asia. It was first described scientifically in 1758 by Linnaeus based on a specimen from southern Europe, is migratory and returns to Africa from August to early October. The specific epithet apiaster means bee-eater in Latin. The European bee-eater is from 25 to 29 cm tall, weighs some 52 g and the two sexes look alike, but the female is slightly duller than the male. It has a deep-green tail and rump, a golden-yellow upper back and a chestnut head and neck. The lower chest and belly are a deep turquoise while the legs and feet are purplish brown. The recurved bill is black and the eyes are crimson. In South Africa it is ubiquitous but it occurs less frequently in the Free State, southern KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape province. It is largely absent from hê grassland parts of Gauteng, the Free State and the eastern Cape.

The European bee-eater is highly gregarious and often forms loose flocks of up to 100 birds. It occurs in a wide diversity of habitats but avoids overly dry and wet regions. It forms large flocks, sleeping colonially in leafy trees in groups of several hundred birds that sit shoulder to shoulder. It skims the water surface when drinking water and foraging is done on the wing when it can dive from as high as 150 m to catch flying prey. Nevertheless it also forages from the ground at times. It forages in bouts lasting 20 minutes at a time, and in the interval much time is spent in sunbathing on a branch of a dead tree or occasionally on the ground. It often feeds on termites and ants which it snatches from the ground and swallows in flight. It mainly eats small and large bees and wasps, flying ants and termites, flies, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, cicadas, water scorpions, praying mantises, beetles, grasshoppers and locusts. A larger prey is carried in the hooked bill to a perch where it is beaten to a pulp. Venomous insects like bees and wasps are rubbed against the perch first to discharge the sting venom. Feeding activity reduces in wet or cold weather, or in the middle of the day on hot days. The European bee-eater regurgitates undigested remains in a long pellet.

European bee-eaters are territorial and form monogamous (occasionally bigamous) pairs for several years. It breeds mainly in fynbos in southern Europe and Africa. They nest colonially and 10 to 30 pairs, but sometimes up to 100, nest together. The nest consists of a horizontal or slightly upward sloping tunnel in a firm soil bank. The tunnel of 65 to 70 mm ends in an elliptic nest chamber that is 250 mm wide. The nesting chamber is usually unlined but it can be lined with grass roots and some nests may be used repeatedly. Two to six blunt, elliptic, smooth white eggs with a rosy tint are usually laid in the summer and they incubate after 19 to 28 days, but sometimes less. The chick weighs 6 g at birth. Newly hatched chicks are naked and their eyes are closed. Their skins are matt, wrinkled and pink and the lower mandible is longer than the upper one. The eyes open when they are some ten days old and a nestling is fully developed at an age of 30 to 31 days. Both adults feed the nestlings but some juveniles remain as helpers to feed the new chicks. In Europe, both sexes spend the night in the nest chamber but in South Africa only the females do so.

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (eds) 2005. Roberts – Birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 195 - 196.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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