Prior to 1980 this summer visiting bird was only to be found in France in a narrow band along the Mediterranean coast. Since this time it has gone through a massive expansion in its nesting range and although more common in the south they can now be found nesting throughout the east, west and centre of France, the valleys of the Saône, Doubs, the Loire, the Allier, Brittany (Baie Audierne) and even occasionally near Paris.
The European Bee eater is about the size of a Thrush (28 cm with an average weight of 60 g and a wingspan of 45-50 cm) and is a truly beautiful bird both visually and vocally with no chance of being confused with anything else. They have an agile flight, rather swallow like, but also like swallows they are rather awkward on the ground which they avoid preferring to perch on posts, wires or dead branches. They are one of our most colourful birds with a blue-green turquoise abdomen, chest and lower wings, reddish-brown on the back, the cap and the top of the wings, dark green tail and long slightly curved black beak. Bib yellow with black border, black eyes with red iris.
They pair for life, generally nest in colonies and are easily seen perching in dead trees or similar in close proximity to the nest site where, in the initial period following their arrival, the males can be seen presenting the females with food which consists of a range of larger insects; bush crickets, grasshoppers, bumble bees, honey bees, wasps and hornets are particularly popular. These are caught on the wing, the method of hunting being similar in some ways again to that of swallows except that once caught they are held sideways in their beak and killed by hitting them against a branch, occasionally creatures such as lizards will be taken from the ground. Normally 5 or 6 eggs are laid which take about 3 weeks to hatch, then about a month after hatching the young birds start to come out of the nest cavity, but remain very close to enable them to dive back in at the slightest threat. Towards the end of August or early in September the nest sites are completely abandoned and the birds start to form pre-migration groups, again this is similar to the behaviour of swallows, and large groups of as many as 60, 70 or perhaps more birds can be observed gathering in the same place before departing on their long journey to their winter home. The migration from France uses the Straights of Gibraltar and is a risky affair with possibly as many as 30% lost to predation and hunting, perhaps more so for Eastern European birds that pass via the Mediterranean Islands and the Middle East.
Bee eaters arrive from their over wintering in either West or South Africa in mid May. The tunnel of up to 2 metres in length, is made in sandy soil of a fairly specific “granulation” that is soft enough to tunnel in and yet firm enough to prevent collapse, something that is very important when constructed in fields full of cattle which they frequently are! It is almost always in close proximity to water, hence riversides, lakes and disused quarries that can be dry or partly flooded where the birds either dig new tunnels or restore tunnels from the previous year. The riverside nest sites are particularly vulnerable to flooding during periods of extreme rainfall and significant losses can occur!
Bee eaters don’t really have a song as such but their calls are distinctive and will often be heard before the birds are seen and when there are several together the combined calling can take the form of babbling or warbling song.
Photos - Bee eaters in Vienne, France 86.
European Bee eater
Map right showing, (green), where Bee eaters nested in 2012.
Photo above - Bee eaters shot in Malta on migration where thousands of migratory birds are slaughtered every year. Source CABS.
Photo above - Some of the insect remains from a Bee eaters nest giving some idea of the vast number of insects consumed. There were in fact vastly more than this and the nest appeared to have suffered an attack by a small mammal, Weasel perhaps.