bea eaters birds

European Bee-eaters (merops apiaster)

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 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, bee-eaters are very talkative birds. Their beautiful, haunting chatter can be heard echoing in the valleys around Pissouri in the early mornings and evenings. Their speed and agility are truly astounding.

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, weak feet, and move with a slow, awkward gait.  Their plumage is quite spectacular, with a blue underbelly, chestnut head leading to a golden-brown back, and a yellow and white throat. In the bright Cypriot sunshine the colours take on a lustre all of their own.

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 mostly feed where they perch, 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. They hold the larger insects until they perch again. Here they will proceed to beat the insect on the perch to kill it. They are also able to eat poisonous insects; before they eat them they beat and wipe (with closed eyes) to extract the poison.

beaeaters4Although it is illegal to kill these birds in Cyprus, they are sometimes killed by bee-keepers protecting their hives. Although they do consume bees, large insects and those detrimental to bees (such as wasps) also contribute to their diet. 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. They may have been 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 benefits of these birds, not to mention bird-watching tourism, will hopefully have an impact on ensuring the longevity of bee-eaters.

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