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European Bee-eater, Merops apiaster


European Bee-eaters

The bee-eaters is a very colorful group of birds consisting of about 26 different species (note: some authorities list 24 and others 26 sub-species).

Many consider them to be amongst the most beautiful birds.


Distribution / Range

They are mostly found in Africa, although some species occur in southern Europe, Madagascar, Australia, India and New Guinea (and other islands in the South Pacific).

Most bee-eater species are migratory and may travel thousands of miles to their favorite breeding or wintering sites. A few exceptions may travel short distances in response to the rainy and dry seasons, such as the African Little Bee-eater.



They are characterized by their strikingly colorful plumage .

They have slender bodies and usually elongated central tail feathers.

They have curved and long beaks that end in a sharp point. Their sharp claws enable them to perch on vertical surfaces and are also helpful when excavating nesting tunnels.

Sexes generally look alike, although in some species the males have red irises while the females’ are brown-red. In other species, the tail-streamers of the male are slightly longer than the females’.


Blue-throated Bea-eaterLittle Green Bee-eaters, Merops orientalis

Somali Bee-eater, Merops revoilii, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, Africa Diet / Feeding:

As is suggested by its name, Bee-eater predominantly eats flying insects – particularly bees (honey bees and bumble bees), wasps and hornets, but also dragonflies and other larger insects. They seize them after short dashes and taking the insects back to the perch to eat. Before eating stinging insects, the European Bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface to kill it, then wiping the insect’s abdomen on the perch to discharge the sting.

In Africa, their diet consists of stingless bees and many other insects as available in their feeding range.

Bee-eaters feed on about 250 bees a day, which makes them very unpopular with bee keepers.

Some bee-eater species also eat vegetable matter.



Bee-eaters are colony nesters that typically breed in open country in warmer climates. They are generally monogamous (only one mate); although polygamy has also been observed in some instances.

Breeding pairs nest in long, vertical nesting burrows that they themselves excavated in earth or sand banks, such as river banks or sand quarries. The tunnels are usually at least 3 feet (~ 1 meter) deep and terminate in a nest chamber. These nest burrows may be reused in consecutive years, but most pairs will excavate a new burrow each year.

A clutch consists of (depending on the species) 2 – 9 spherical white eggs, which are laid at 2 day intervals, and are incubated for 19 – 21 days.

Both parents share the incubation tasks and raising of the chicks.

The young leave the nest when they are 21 – 32 days old. The parents will continue to feed them for a while after fledging as the young have to learn to catch insects on the wing (in flight) and to handle stinging insects.


Subfamilies and Species

Bearded bee-eaters – Nyctyornithinae

  • Red-bearded Bee-eater, Nyctyornis amictus

Red-bearded Bee-eater - Male

Female Red-bearded Bee-eater

Typical Bee-eaters – Meropinae

Blue-throated Bee-eater Juveniles


Species Research by Sibylle Johnson


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