There are 27 species of bee-eaters in the family Meropidae. Most of them live in Africa and Asia with a few in Southern Europe, Australia, and New Guinea. The one we in the UK are most familiar with is the European bee-eater, a richly coloured slender bird, that is a scarce visitor in late summer and autumn.
The genus name Meropidae is derived from Merops the Ancient Greek for ‘bee-eater’ which was first used in 1668 to describe the European species. As an aside, the word melittology, the study of bees, has the same roots in Ancient Greek, while the French word for honey, miel, comes from the Latin mel. In turn, both of these come from the Proto-Indo-European root mélit. Proto-Indo-European was a single language spoken from around 4500 to 2500 BC and the common ancestor of Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.
Bee-eaters are insectivorous and almost exclusively aerial hunters. It either catches its prey on the wing or more usually from a perch where it sits and watches for insects to fly past. It can spot prey from up to 60 m away, and approaches it directly or from behind, using its long, curved bills like a pair of forceps to snatch it from the air. Small prey is usually eaten on the wing, but it brings larger prey back to the branch where it smashes it until it’s dead and broken into smaller pieces.
Bee-eaters eat a wide array of insects including beetles, mayflies, stoneflies, cicades, termites, crickets, grasshoppers, mantises, true flies, moths, and butterflies. But for many species, most of the insects they eat belong to Hymenoptera, a large order that includes bees, wasps, sawflies, and ants, many of which have a stinger.
Insects with poisonous stingers are caught in the air and also struck on a branch, but before being consumed, the bee-eater closes its eyes and rubs the insect to remove the stinger and venom sac. This behaviour is innate and has been observed in a juvenile bee-eater in captivity, although the bird did get stung the first few times.
The proportion of a bee-eater’s diet that is made up of bees and wasps depends on the species and can be anywhere between 20% and 96% with the average being 70%. Of these, honeybees make up a large part, sometimes as much as 89% of overall food consumed, depending on how close a bee-eater colony is to an apiary.
In general, bee-eaters will not enter an apiary in search of food but will eat bees caught within a 12 km radius. If it is very cold or wet, and bees are not leaving the hive, then bee-eaters will sometimes enter a hive if there is a severe shortage of other insect prey.
Although many bee-keepers are concerned that bee-eaters prevent worker bees from foraging, studies have shown that bee-eaters have no impact on how much bees forage, and in some cases, bees forage more when they are near bee-eaters. Predation is at its highest when the bees are queening or during migration, and hives that are close to trees are more at risk as the bee-eaters have somewhere close by to perch.
The birds and the bees have co-existed happily for centuries and the impact birds have on honey and mason bees is minimal. Bees are much more at risk from predators such as shrews, foxes, badgers, and rodents, and human activity such as the destruction of habitat and the use of pesticides.
What other birds eat bees?
Bee-eaters are not the only species of bird to eat bees. The European honey-buzzard, a large bird of prey, that arrives in the UK from Africa to breed between May and September, also eats insects with stingers.
Its scientific name, Pernis apivorus, derives from the Latin word apivorous which means ‘bee-eating’, but wasps are, in fact, a much more important source of food and in Germany, it is called Wespenbussard which translates as ‘wasp buzzard’.
Unlike bee-eaters, honey buzzards do not catch insects on the wing. They follow individual bees and wasps back to their nests or forage on the forest floor, where they use their strong toes, and curved claws to excavate the nests and eat the larvae. They have heavy, scale-like feathers on their heads to prevent them from being stung, and are thought to have a chemical deterrent in their feathers to protect them from attacks.
The summer tanager also eats bees and is sometimes known as the ‘beebird’. It catches and eats bees in the same way as bee-eaters, seizing them in mid-flight and beating them on a branch to break them up and remove the stingers. Summer tanagers will sometimes harass and kill adult wasps near vespiaries leaving the nest abandoned so they can easily get at the larvae inside. The scarlet tanager also enjoys eating bees, although its consumption is less than that of the summer tanager.
Other birds that occasionally eat bees include robins, blackbirds, great tits, house martins, swallows, and shrikes, who remove the sting before storing them for later speared on a thorn in their larders.