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European Bee-Eater

Bee-eater, European

Merops apiaster (Genus: Merops, Greek = ‘bee-eater’; species: apiaster, Latin = ‘bee-eater’)

 Bonganyuchi (Shona: bonga = to pick, nyuchi = bee); other Shona terms: Gamanyuchi, Fukarusheshe, Pfukepfuke


These pretty birds come to Zimbabwe every year around December and January: I have seen them this year but only flying overhead. I usually hear them first: their call transcribes quite well as prruip, and they make it constantly when they are flying together.  I guess it functions to keep the group together. 

 The picture below captures their beautifully neat and sharp outline shape in flight – wings broad at the base but sharpening to an acute angle, a noticeable crooked ‘elbow’, long and quite narrow tail (though it can also be spread wide), with a single tail feather extending. 

Flight, European bee-eater

They are swift and acrobatic fliers, specializing in taking their food, which is mainly flying insects, on the wing.  I remember watching large flocks of them swirling around like tea leaves stirred in a mug, deftly snatching the unsuspecting bees or flying ants or whatever. 

Having caught a bee, they return to their perch and then rub the insect against the branch to get it to eject the poison from its sting before gobbling it down.  When not feeding, they can often be seen at rest on telephone or power lines, sometimes in large numbers, lined up and snuggling up to one another as if for warmth. 

They are only here in the hot and rainy weather, however, as they are migratory and do not breed here: our rains bring out lots of the insects on which they feed.  To me, it feels as if we have seen less of them this year than I used to in the past; perhaps it is an effect of ‘global warming’.  But, to tell the truth, I find it hard to trust my own memories about that sort of thing.  It may just be that I get out less than I used to.

Where do they come from?  Most of the European Bee-eaters that visit this part of Africa are non-breeding ‘Palearctic migrants’, meaning they migrate here from the ‘Palearctic’, which is an enormous zoogeographical region that includes Europe, North Africa and northern Asia, east to eastern Siberia: so, that’s not very specific.  It raises an obvious question about the word “European” in the common English name for these birds: in what sense is it appropriate to call them “European”, I wonder? 

They must breed in some other summer somewhere else.  A smaller group of these birds are intra-African migrants and do apparently breed in Africa, but my book seems to suggest that those are mostly to be found in South Africa rather than up here.  I suppose, then, that many of them never set foot or wing in Europe at all.  I guess it goes to show that birds do whatever works for them, and can’t be neatly pigeonholed (if they will excuse the expression) as this or that kind of migrant.  They are certainly no respecters of our ridiculous national boundaries.  The point, for them at least,  is where to find the best supplies of insects.  

Apparently the most common migrants in the bird world are insectivorous aerial foragers such as these, grabbing their flying prey on the wing: so, apart from these (and other kinds of) bee-eaters, swallows, swifts, and nightjars are also migrants. 

The whole business of migration remains rather mysterious, though we know a lot more now than in the past.  Aristotle, apparently, thought that swallows hibernated in the mud during the winter: and perhaps that is not as stupid as it sounds.  Behind it you can perhaps detect some close if not hugely accurate observation, for swallows do mess about with mud, building their nests from it.  Others thought that swallows fly to the moon at the end of the summer, which is a nice idea (better than the mud) that I think I will adopt myself.  When the cuckoos disappeared on their migration, they were believed to change into hawks in the winter: some of them do look a bit like hawks. 

The reason birds migrate is fundamentally the search of supplies of food: insect numbers burgeon significantly in warmer weather.  The idea would be to go where you know that the insect pickings are good, and raise a family there before the winter comes, at which time you head off for where it is just becoming summer all over again. 

These journeys can be very long and hazardous.  There is one tiny hummingbird, one of the smallest birds in the world, that flies direct across the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping on the way (of course).  It is an incredible journey and many, many of them must fail to reach the other side where those that do can be seen exhausted and desperately tanking-up again on their particularly ‘high-octane’ fuel (nectar from flowers). 

One wonders how many successfully make it, but it must be enough of them to render it a viable survival strategy at the level of the species, if not at that of the individuals.  

How do birds navigate when they migrate?  Perhaps we can look at that another time….

Stephen Buckland

Dr. Stephen Buckland – Lecturer in Philosophy but also a keen amateur bird watcher.

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