This nugget comes from the two very fine books on bee-eaters by C. Hillary
Fry (Fry 1988, Fry et al. 1992), a Brit who has spent substantial time
studying them in Africa and the Middle East. His first book nicely summarizes
the family this way: "'Admirable' is the word for bee-eaters. Being birds
of the sun, none live in Britain... yet thoroughly attractive birds they
undoubtedly are -- sleek and graceful, melodious, restrainedly colourful,
tractable, confiding and sociable; and wherever the various kinds occur
they are regarded (except by bee-keepers!) with affection. In southern
Australia the arrival of their bee-eater, the Rainbowbird, is taken to
herald the spring; throughout Africa villagers take proprietary pride in
any nearby colony of Carmine Bee-eaters; while a clamorous nesting colony
of 50,000 Rosy Bee-eaters is one of the seven wonders of the ornithological
world. I shall forego the satisfaction of rhapsodizing any further, and
let the birds speak for themselves." I absolutely agree that a dense
flock of Rosy Bee-eaters M. malimbicus, like the ones I saw packing
together on a telephone line at dusk over a Gabonese river, is a sight
Many bee-eaters are social creatures of open country but there are retiring denizens of dense Asian jungles such as the wonderful Red-bearded Bee-eater (right) that I photographed near its nest burrow in western Sumatra. All bee-eaters dig such burrows for nesting sites. Nearly all the family is assigned to the genus Merops but the Red-bearded Bee-eater of Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra & Borneo is in the genus Nyctornis (as is the more northern Blue-bearded Bee-eater N. athertoni in SE Asia; the purple-headed Celebes Bee-eater Meropogon forsteni is the other non-Merops oddity). These are quiet forest birds found in pairs, and each is a fine treat on a hot Asian afternoon. Most bee-eaters have spiky tail extensions but Nyctornis does not.
Bee-eaters eat bees. While they will lively pursue at type of flying insect, honeybees predominate their diet. The world range of the bee-eaters is nearly congruent to the native world range of the four species of honeybees. Fry et al. (1992) says that "in 20 separate studies of the diet of 16 kinds of bee-eaters, Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) comprised from 20% to 96% of all insects eaten, and honeybees formed on average about one-third of the Hymenoptera... [this all] suggests that for aeons the birds have evolved in relations to honeybees, as their predators." All venomous bees and wasps that are caught on the wing are brought back to the perch where they are devenomed (by violent bouts of pounding and rubbing), immobilized and eaten. Bee-eaters are almost strictly predators on flying insects. Once an insect lands the bee-eater ignores it, even if in plain sight. Bee-eaters are just programmed to catch things on the wing. The one species that eats vegetable matter at all (the White-throated Bee-eater M. albicollis of west Africa) catches shreds of oil-palm nut skin stripped from the nuts but forest squirrels in the canopy. These bits are snatched in mid-air; together the bee-eater and the squirrels form a remarkable association.
Many species of bee-eater are migratory, including the European Bee-eater M. apiaster that travels thousands of miles from European breeding grounds to west and southern Africa, and the Rainbow Bee-eater (left in a fine shot by Ed Harper), the "Rainbowbird" of Australia that moves north to New Guinea and the Moluccas after nesting. An exception is the Little Bee-eater (below; another great Ed Harper picture) of tropical Africa that apparently makes only short local movements in response to the rainy and dry seasons.
In both of his bee-eater books, and in the applicable Birds of Africa
series (Fry et al. 1988), Hillary Fry considers there to be but 24 species
of bee-eaters. In this respect he is on the rather conservative side of
the taxonomic issue. Compared with current unfortunate trends away from
the time-tested biological species concept, this caution is mostly applauded.
But in two cases I prefer the middle ground adopted by Sibley & Monroe
(1990) and followed by Clements (1991). First, the carmine bee-eaters of
Africa are split into two species: Northern Carmine M. nubicus and
Southern Carmine M. nubicoides. The latter taxa is the lead photo
on this page (top left) and is easily identified by its bright pink throat
(the Northern Carmine Bee-eater has a green-blue throat like the crown).
These two populations never come in contact with the Northern bird breeding
in the savanna woodlands just south of the Sahara while the Southern bird
breeds in open dry country in interior southern Africa. Both migrant towards
the equator but ranges do not overlap. Fry (1984) believes these populations
were separated by the last ice age and have thus been allopatric for but
11,000 or so years; because they have similar behaviors his guess is that
they would widely interbreed if environmental change brought them back
together again. On the other hand, given the recent work with Galapagos
finches which illustrates how rapidly taxa can evolve, 11000+ years seems
like plenty of time for isolating mechanisms to have evolved.
Less hypothetical is the case of Blue-tailed Bee-eater of India & SE Asia to New Guinea (right) and the Madagascar Bee-eater of east Africa and Madagascar (far right). Fry and colleagues (1984, 1988, 1992) consider them the same species. In fact, they once considered the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater M. persicus of the Middle East and w. India to be the middle link in a widespread species from Africa to Madagascar. But then it was proved that Blue-cheeked and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters co-exists without interbreeding in nw. India, shooting down that theory for good. Yet to be "conservative" Fry et al. continues to lump the two "ends" of range although the "middle" is now missing. The better approach, it seems to me, to consider all three taxa (Madagascar, Blue-cheeked, and Blue-tailed) as separate species. Surely if Blue-cheeked and Blue-tailed meet and don't interbreed, it stands to reason that some isolating mechanism would preclude random mating between my New Guinea Blue-tailed (right) and my Madagascar bird (far right).
Photos: Greg W. Lasley took the perched group of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters Merops nubicoides in Okavango Delta, Botswana, on 16 Nov 1981. My shot of the Red-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis amictus is from Ketambe in Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia, in Aug 1988. W. Ed Harper photographed both the Rainbow Bee-eater M. ornatus in Georgetown, Queensland, Australia in Apr 1996, and the Little Bee-eater M. pusillus at Tarangire, Tanzania, in July 1999. I photographed the Blue-tailed Bee-eater M. philippinus in Wasur Nat'l Park, Irian Jaya, New Guinea, on 10 Aug 1994, and the Madagascar Bee-eater M. superciliosus above Perinet, Madagascar, on 2 Dec 1992. Photos © 2001 D. Roberson, Greg W. Lasley, and W. Ed Harper as attributed, used with permission; all rights reserved.
Family book: Rating HHHH
There are two family books; I give both a 4-star (out of five) rating. My brief review considers them together. Of course, there will surely be astonishing photos in the applicable volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World series, due out soon. The two family texts are:
Fry, C. H. 1984. The Bee-eaters. T. & A.D. Poyser, Calton,
Fry, C. H., K. Fry, & A. Harris 1992. Kingfishers, Bee-eaters & Rollers. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.
Hillary Fry penned these books almost a decade apart but in many respects the bee-eater text of the 1992 volume in the Princeton series is simply a summary of the fine 1984 book. In many respects I like the 1984 book better. It is simply focused on bee-eaters and thus there is enough space to ramble on various topics of interest, including taxonomic choices. Fry is much interested in evolution and he expands at length on the topic in the 1984 book (but had no space to do so in the '92 tome). As noted on my page above, Fry lists only 24 bee-eaters while most current authorities enumerate 26; Fry explains why in the 1984 book but only gives a passing line to the topic in the 1992 volume. But the 1992 book is much more user-friendly with color plates facing range maps, and I much prefer Alan Harris's color artwork (1992 book) over that by John Busby (in 1984). I think Harris has captured both the "jizz" of these sleek birds and their bright colors without going overboard. In book books, however, the art is "field guide art" without significant backgrounds. But the 1984 book is also graced by numerous line drawings by Busby that enliven the adjacent text. One of my favorites is a series of sketches of behaviors "in need of confirmation" including a Carmine Bee-eater stealing an insect from the beak of a Kori Bustard.Literature cited:
The 1984 book is very liberal with references and in long details on all aspects of biology and ecology. The 1992 effort, typical of the Princeton series, is more focused on plumage and distribution. Neither book provides a compendium of vagrant records but the basic breeding and wintering ranges are well portrayed. [One strange point is that in both books Fry describes the Cuckoo-Roller of the related family Loptosomatidae as endemic to the Comoro Islands. Yes, the Cuckoo-Roller occurs there but is also widespread in Madagascar. I can't imagine how this lapse occurred.]
In all, both are very strong family books by one of the world's leading authorities. Well written, entertaining and nicely illustrated, both come highly recommended. If you want to focus on bee-eaters the 1984 text is the superior choice but if the inclusion of kingfishers and rollers whets your appetite the 1992 book is the better value.
Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.TOP
Fry, C. H., S. Keith, & E. K. Urban, eds. 1988. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 3. Academic Press, London.
Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
BACK TO LIST OF BIRD FAMILIES OF THE WORLD