Bird of the Week: Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Southern Europe is blessed to provide a home to the European bee-eater, who returns from West and Southern Africa to breed here every spring. (Off on a bizarre migration tangent, in June 2015, two breeding pairs were spotted in Cumbria, Northern England. As most of my childhood holidays were spent there, I can confirm that its climate is very, very different to Greece...)
As for diet, there's no prizes for guessing their favourite food. Whilst the honey bee is their main meal, that's not all they eat. They're happy with any flying insect, which they catch themselves mid-air. And that means that they don't have such particular habitat needs - so long as there are insects, the bee-eaters can feed. They just need a perch to spy out from.
By Raúl Baena Casado, CC BY 2.0,
What about the bee-sting though? They've thought of that. Before sitting down to dine, bee-eaters first bash and rub a bee (or wasp) against the ground several times, and this pushes out the venom.
Large colony on the banks of the Agios Germanos river, Prespa. High above the river they're save from flooding.
Their nests are also interesting. No trees for these guys! Large numbers of them burrow into sand banks, especially those formed by rivers, and they make their nests there. European bee-eaters are also monogamous (although some bigamy has been reported) and both parents share responsibility for looking after the young. Unusually for birds, bee-eaters may even look after the chicks of their next door neighbour in the colony!
Small colony on a Prespa dirt road
Following info from the BirdLife Factsheet
In Europe, the breeding population is estimated to number 480,000-1,000,000 breeding pairs, equating to 1440,000-3,000,000 individuals (BirdLife International 2004). Europe forms 25-49% of the global range, so a very preliminary estimate of the global population size is 2,940,000-12,000,000 individuals, although further validation of this estimate is needed. Trend justification:
Declines may be occurring in parts of the range owing to loss of suitable prey due to widespread application of pesticides, loss of nesting sites through canalisation of rivers, increasing agricultural efficiency and establishment of monocultures, development of wilderness areas and shooting for sport, for food and because it is considered a crop pest (del Hoyo et al. 2001). However, in Europe the overall trend from 1980-2011 was stable, based on provisional data for 27 countries from the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (EBCC/RSPB/BirdLife/Statistics Netherlands).