Walking through a grassland or a forest clearing, one often comes across a colourful bird gliding gracefully, snapping loudly in mid-air and returning to its perch. Welcome to the world of bee-eaters (family Meropidae). 26 species across 3 genera make up this family of birds. They are widespread across the tropics in the Old World.

As their common name suggests, most species of bee-eaters favour bees and wasps as their primary prey (around 70% of their diet on average). Even ancient Egyptians called them Melinoorghi or “the bees’ enemy”. With their voracious appetite (around 225 bee-size insects a day), ten pairs in an area could potentially finish off over 1,26,000 insects a month! No wonder these birds have forever been the bane of apiarists (bee-keepers).

Catching a bee-sized insect in mid-air also means that bee-eaters have excellent eyesight. They are known to spot a bee 60 metres away before launching into their aerial assault.

Bee-eaters also feed on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, cicadas, termites, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, grasshoppers and mantises. As in other Coraciiformes (including kingfishers and rollers), they beat the insect on a branch to kill it and break the exoskeleton. With bees or wasps that contain venom, the bird proceeds to rub the insect on the perch (with its eyes closed) to discharge the venom before feeding on it.

The scientific names of the family (Meropidae) and the largest genus (Merops) have nothing to do with their diet, however. They are derived from the soft murmuring calls of the birds.

There are many other similarities among the different species. Most species sport bright plumage. Green is a very common colour among this family of birds, with all but 3 species sporting the colour. Sexes are alike in most species. However, in some species like the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, males were reported to be more colourful in the UV spectrum. Many species are very social and roost, feed and nest in colonies. The nests are hollows reaching over 5 feet long dug into mud banks/cliffs or on level ground.

How do different species that are so similar co-exist? They prefer different habitats, thereby reducing competition and helping the species thrive in that niche. From grasslands to water bodies to forest clearings to the hills, 5 different species of bee-eaters are encountered in Karnataka.

  • Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
  • Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus)
  • Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)
  • European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
  • Blue-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni)

Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

This is arguably the most common species (and the smallest) of Bee-eaters in Karnataka. Widespread across the state, they are often seen in grasslands, scrub and open agricultural fields, often far away from water. They perch on short shrubs and trees from which they launch into a hunt. Low-hanging electric wires are another favourite perch.

01 Green Bee-eater

Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

Green Bee-eaters are widely distributed all the way from sub-Saharan Africa through West Asia and India to Vietnam. There are at least 9 subspecies recognised based on regional variations. The nominate race orientalis is seen in Karnataka.

The breeding ecology of the bird is interesting. Green Bee-eaters are solitary nesters (unlike most other species) and form loose colonies with nests separated by at least 10m. The nest is typically a tunnel made in a sandy bank. According to Sridhar and Karanth, around 40% of the nests studied had a solitary helper assisting the breeding pair in nesting activities. It was noted that the fledging success improved and the nesting duration was reduced in such cases. This association seemed stronger in seasons following a poor monsoon.

This cooperative breeding behaviour has been observed in 11 species of bee-eaters (including the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and European Bee-eater). Interestingly, the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle mentions this cooperative behaviour in European Bee-eaters.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus)

At first glance, this bird can be confused with the Green Bee-eater due to its mostly green colouration. But then, it is a much larger bird with a prominently larger beak. The chestnut-crown is missing, the blue on the throat is replaced by yellow-brown and the tail is unmistakably blue.

02 Blue-tailed Bee-eater-1

Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus)

The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is commonly found around large water bodies, including reservoirs like Kabini and Bhadra. It is a gregarious bird and nests in colonies in sandy banks or open flat areas. Dragonflies form an important part of their diet, along with bees.

02 Blue-tailed Bee-eater Feeding

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)

Found in the deciduous forests of the Western Ghats, this bee-eater is seen in forest clearings typically near water bodies. The largely green bird has a splash of blue on its rump and lower belly. The chestnut on the crown and nape contrast with the bright yellow face and throat.

03-1 Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)

Like other bee-eaters, it roosts, feeds and nests communally. A community roosting site on the banks of the Bhadra Reservoir looked like a tree adorned with hundreds of lights at dusk.

03-2 Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

This is the only long-distance migrant on this list, with small numbers wintering in Karnataka. The only bee-eater that breeds in Europe, it migrates to Africa and South Asia in winters.

04 European Bee-eater

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

This brightly coloured bird has the least amount of green amongst Karnataka’s bee-eaters. It has been consistently recorded wintering in and around the Cauvery Valley. It is seen groups in open fields and hilly outcrops close to water bodies, where it often perches on trees or on electricity cables. A gregarious bird, it is not uncommon to encounter them in big groups. 

Blue-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni)

This is India’s largest bee-eater. And it is very different from the others on the list. For starters, it belongs to a completely different genus and sub-family (Nyctyornithinae). It is a stockier bird with a large sickle-shaped bill. The blue throat feathers give it the common name. It doesn’t have the black line through the eye and the tail streamers are missing.

05 blue-bearded bee eater

Blue-bearded Bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni)

The Blue-bearded Bee-eater is found predominantly in the Western Ghats where it inhabits forest clearings in dense broadleaved forests. It is less gregarious and is seen in groups of upto 3 individuals. In addition to catching insects on the wing, this bird has also been observed gleaning insects from tree bark.

 

The next time you are out watching and/or photographing birds, observe these colourful wonders closely. Their sure-shot aim and their bow-and-arrow-like shape in flight have mesmerised people for eons. No wonder that the ancient Sanskrit name of the bee-eater was Sharnga, or “Vishnu’s Bow”, and they were dedicated to deities associated with the art of archery and marksmanship!