The bee-eaters are a group of near-passerine birds in the family Meropidae. Most species are found in Africa and Asia but others occur in southern Europe, Australia, and New Guinea. They are characterised by richly coloured plumage, slender bodies, and usually elongated central tail feathers. All have long downturned bills and pointed wings, which give them a swallow-like appearance when seen from afar. There are 26 different species of bee-eaters.
As the name suggests, bee-eaters predominantly eat flying insects, especially bees and wasps, which are caught in the air by sallies from an open perch. While they pursue any type of flying insect, honey bees predominate in their diet. Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) comprise from 20% to 96% of all insects eaten, with honey bees comprising approximately one-third of the Hymenoptera.
Before eating its meal, a bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting and rubbing the insect on a hard surface. During this process, pressure is applied to the insect thereby extracting most of the venom. Notably, the birds only catch prey that are on the wing and ignore flying insects once they land.
Bee-eaters are gregarious. They form colonies by nesting in burrows tunnelled into the side of sandy banks, such as those that have collapsed on the edges of rivers. Their eggs are white and they generally produce 2-9 eggs per clutch (depending on species). As they live in colonies, large numbers of these holes are often seen together, white streaks from their accumulated droppings accentuating the entrances to the nests. Most of the species in the family are monogamous, and both parents care for the young, sometimes with the assistance of other birds in the colony.
The bee-eaters are a fairly uniform group, morphologically. They share many features with related Coraciiformes such as the kingfishers and rollers, being large-headed (but not as large-headed as their relatives) short-necked, brightly plumaged and short-legged. Their wings may be rounded or pointed, with wing shape closely correlated with foraging habitat and migratory tendencies. Shorter, rounder wings are found on species that are sedentary and make shorter foraging flights in denser forests and reedbeds. Those with more elongated wings are more migratory. All the bee-eaters are highly aerial. They take off strongly from perches, fly directly without undulating, and are able to change directions quickly. Bee-eaters rarely hover, however.
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