European Bee-eaters (merops apiaster)

“Some birds were made for poems. Keats had his nightingale, Poe his raven. The European bee-eater’s life is more like an epic novel, sprawling across continents, teeming with familial intrigue, theft, danger, chicanery, and flamboyant beauty.”

– Bruce Barcott for National Geographic.

beaeaters2BEE-EATERS are a one of the more beautiful migratory birds visiting Cyprus, arriving in large numbers in the spring and autumn as they make the long journey between Central and Eastern Europe and Africa. Along the way they are subject to predation in the Mediterranean region mainly from Eleonora’s falcons, with some 30 % not surviving the round trip. Small numbers sometimes stay for extended periods (up to 3 months) in Cyprus, but this is not the norm.

beaeaters-300x191 beaeaters1-300x191Apart from their visual beauty, they are very talkative birds, and their beautiful, haunting chatter can be heard echoing in the valleys around Pissouri in the early mornings and evenings as they dart and wheel through the skies in an amazing acrobatic display. Their speed and agility are truly astounding as they feed on the insects stirred up from the farmlands in the Pissouri valley.

The European Bee-eater is a medium sized bird with a large head, long curved pointed beak, and large pointed wings reminiscent of a swallow. They have short legs and weak feet, and on the ground move with a slow, awkward gait. Plumage is quite spectacular, with a blue underbelly, chestnut head leading to a golden-brown back, a yellow and white throat, and with a black “bandit’s mask”. In the bright Cypriot sunshine the colours take on a lustre all of their own, the back looking like a golden cloak fit for the wealthiest of kings.

The gregarious bee-eaters gather in largish flocks, calling and swirling through the air as they feed. They will interestingly only feed on flying insects, and will not eat those prone on plants or on the ground. They will mostly feed where they can perch and then launch themselves after their prey. They snatch the insects out of the air with the tip of their strong beaks, crushing the smaller ones and devouring them on the wing. The larger insects they will hold until they perch again, when they will proceed to beat the insect on the perch to kill it and break it up. The poisonous insects they will also beat and wipe (with eyes closed) in a ritual to extract the poison before devouring it.

beaeaters4 beaeaters3Although it is illegal to kill these birds in Cyprus, they are sometimes killed by bee-keepers protecting their hives. Although they do consume bees (hence their name), large insects and those detrimental to bees (such as wasps) also contribute a significant amount to their diet. They are definitely wrongly cast as villains, but are in fact a part of nature’s balance. Without their contribution, predatory insects would have a devastating effect on the hive populations of bees. Interestingly, cases have also been reported of the bodies of bee-eaters shot near hives being attacked by the bees themselves, resulting in the deaths of many bees. Ongoing efforts to educate the population of Cyprus (as in other Mediterranean countries) as to the direct benefits of these birds, and also the financial benefits of bird-watching tourism, will hopefully have a significant impact on ensuring the longevity of this beautiful species.

The bee-eaters are truly a spectacular part of the migratory gift bestowed upon us here in Cyprus.

With many thanks to:

Tassos Shialis of Birdlife Cyprus ( www.birdlifecyprus.org ).

Spyros Skareas – photo

K.D. Panayiotis – photo