The Arduous Migration of the Bee-eaters

I’ve taken frequent boat trips up the Nile River to Murchison Fall.  As we motor up the river, the guide always points out the bee-eaters colonies.  These birds dig adits into the sandy banks, adjacent to rivers.  They dart around, chasing insects.

Bee-eaters Along the Sandy Cliffs of the Nile River

Bee-eaters Along the Sandy Cliffs of the Nile River

The family Meropidae contains 27 brightly colored species, of which Africa is home to 20.  Birder Adam Riley reports seeing 8 different species in one morning while boating toward Murchison Falls.

One of the most colorful and interesting of the Meropidae family is the European bee-eater.  It’s a tiny bird, with a long down-turned beak, slender body, pointed wings, and almost psychodelic coloration:  saffron throat, turquoise breast, and chestnut crown.

The Exotic Coloration on the European (or Golden) Bee-eater

The Exotic Coloration on the European (or Golden) Bee-eater

The European bee-eater is a migratory species.  It has to run a gantlet to get to Africa, flying every year from southern Europe, across the Mediterranean, over the Sahara, before finally arriving in sub-Saharan Africa.  The stress of this migration claims some, raptors attack others, but man has also become a major predator.

Each year, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, hundreds of millions of migratory birds such as the bee-eater are killed by hunters.  In an article in NG (Jul 2013), Jonathan Franzen campaigns against this senseless slaughter.  According to the NG editor:

The orioles, warblers, [bee-eaters], and shrikes Franzen writes about–like the mockingbird in Harper Lee’s novel–“don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

But not all species of bee-eaters migrate.

Bee-eaters are gregarious; they organize and live into colonies.  And for most species, they are monogamous, with both parents caring for the young.  Sometimes parental responsibilities are even shared with other members of the colony, a behavior unusual in birds.

The colorful bee-eaters are an stunning part of the African environment.  They are another reason to visit Uganda and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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4 Responses to The Arduous Migration of the Bee-eaters

  1. This lovely species, also known as Golden Bee-eater (a name I far prefer) is our 20th and final species of African bee-eater. As its name indicates, it breeds in Europe, with good numbers still nesting on the Iberian Peninsula and into eastern Europe, as well as further westwards right across to China. They also nest in north Africa, and the entire population winters in Africa. Furthermore, some populations have recently started nesting in South Africa and Namibia. This species prefers warm, open countryside and their cheerful calls are often the best indication of the presence. European Bee-eaters can be found through-out Africa at the right time of year. Kruger National Park in South Africa and Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda are particularly good sites.

  2. View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre .

  3. This is an abundant and tame bird, familiar throughout its range. There have been estimated to be between 60-80 million Little Bee-eaters. It breeds in open country with bushes, preferably near water. Just as the name suggests, bee-eaters predominantly eat insects , especially bees , wasps and hornets , which are caught in the air by sorties from an open perch. This species often hunts from low perches, maybe only a metre or less high. Before eating its meal, a bee-eater removes the sting by repeatedly hitting the insect on a hard surface.

  4. Lucien Wise says:

    The green bee-eater is known to be a slow starter in the mornings and may be found huddled next to one another with their bills tucked in their backs well after sunrise. The green bee-eater is also known to sand-bathe more frequently than other bee-eater species and will sometimes bathe in water by dipping into water in flight. Green bee-eaters are usually seen in small groups and often roost communally in large numbers of up to 300 birds.

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