The European bee-eater is one of the more colourful of the twenty seven different species of bee-eaters found worldwide.
Eurasian Bee Eater
Roughly the same size as a starling, the adult male European bee-eater’s breeding plumage is distinctive. The head has a brown cap with a yellow forehead and prominent bright yellow throat. There is a broad black eye band starting at the base of the long pointed bill and extending above and below the eye almost to the nape of the neck. The eyes are a medium red. A thinner black band separates the base of the throat from the top of the breast which is a greenish blue extending along the underparts as far as the long tail. The tail has a central spike caused by two elongated feathers which is prominent during flight and at rest. The underwing area is a copper colour mixed with translucent silver and a black tipped trailing edge. Scapulars and rump are a greyish yellow in colour and the upper wing marginal, lesser, median and greater coverts are mid brown. The rest of the wing, including the primary coverts are green as is the tail. The trailing edge of the upper wing is tipped with a dark almost black hue. The female is similar to the male although the scapulars and back are greener and the throat and breast colouration paler than the male. In eclipse plumage, outside of the breeding season, the central spike to the tail is absent and the bird’s back is more of a greeny blue and altogether more dull overall. Juveniles are mainly coloured green in the areas normally brown in their parents and generally paler all over.
European bee-eater sitting on a branch
European bee-eaters are social birds frequently in flocks during flight or roosting whilst uttering a cacophony of deep toned ‘prrroop, prrrooop’ sounds often repeated many times.
Bee-eaters are insectivorous and as well as feeding off bees also take many other insects including wasps, dragon flies and locusts. They tend to catch their food on the wing by swooping down from above and grasping their prey in their strong slim bills which they then take back to their perch. Prior to consuming bees and wasps in particular the bee-eater strikes or rubs its prey against a branch in order to remove the insects sting before consumption.
Bee-eaters feeding on perch
European bee-eaters breed from Portugal and Spain in the west of the continent along the Mediterranean and north African coast and into the Caucasus and the Middle East, migrating south to South Africa during the northern hemisphere winter.
Bee-eaters perched together on a branch
Not only distinctive due to its breeding plumage, the adult European bee-eater is also identifiable by its physique and actions. Often seen perched shoulder to shoulder on overhead cables or branches or simply moving in large flocks calling to each other or swooping down to catch flying insects. They inhabit most terrains but prefer broad river valleys, river banks, meadows and olive groves and can often be seen outside their burrows built on the ground or in sandy banks.
Bee eater in flight
Burrowing into soft sandy banks or cliff top soil they build their nest with their lifelong partner sometimes with the assistance of one of their juvenile offspring. Dependent upon location, females will lay one brood annually of between 4 – 10 eggs from April through to July in the northern hemisphere or October to November in South Africa. Incubation takes up to twenty days with both parents taking turns in one hour shifts throughout the day and the female only at night. Fledging occurs approximately one month from hatching.
Bee-eater at nest feeding young
The average life expectancy for a European bee-eater is between five to ten years.