Bee-eaters – colorful and social fellows

26. February 2014

On our last trip to Wilpattu we saw some Little Green Bee-eaters dust-bathing right in front of us. It seemed as if nothing and nobody could disturb them and I could have watched them for hours turning over in the dust with their colorful coat. That is why I did some research to be able to tell you something more about this species.

Bee-eaters are small to medium sized birds, which stand out because of their brightly colored coat. They belong to the family Meropidae. All of them are characterized by short legs; long, thin, tapering bills and pointed wings. Their name already gives us a hint of what their preferred meal is: bees. But bee-eaters also feed on wasps, butterflies and other insects. The insects are caught on the wing either by darting directly from the branch with the only aim to catch the food or in the middle of a long fast swallow-like flight.

This animal is a really social one and can often be found sitting on the perch in pairs or small groups. In order to procreate they build nests by digging burrows into the ground; sand banks are a favorite place for this, or they only build up a small hump. The time frame to do this differs between the species, some nest between March and June, from April to August.

Worldwide you find more than 25 different species of the Bee-eater. Most of them can be found in Asia, especially in the south, and Africa but you can also discover some of them in the southern parts of Europe, Australia and New Guinea. In Sri Lanka there are four different species, which are the Little Green Bee-eater, the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, the European Bee-eater, and the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater. But how do they differ from each other? Let’s find out!

The Little Green Bee-eater

The Little Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) is an endemic race and got his name because of its size. It is the smallest of the local bee-eaters with 21 cm, which includes the two long central tail-streamers. This Bee-eater has a bright green and bluish throat and chin, blue cheeks, a black gorget and a bronze rear crown and upper back. Other characteristics are the chestnut underwings and the dark line through the eyes. Because of these it is similar to the Blue-tailed bee-eater.

This bee-eater prefers to sit on low branches and wires or even at the sandy ground while waiting for his meal. Its voice sounds like music because it is constantly twittering. If you here a high pitched ‘tree, tree, tree’ or ‘tit, tit, tit’ you can be sure that the little bird is somewhere around.

This species can be found throughout the open spaces of the lowlands or in cultivation of dry zones up to 600 m and light woodland. In the two National Parks Wilpattu and Yala you would have the possibility to see him the whole year round.

The Blue-tailed Bee-eater

As mentioned earlier the Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) has a lot of similarities with the Little Green Bee-eater. The big difference is their size, as the Blue-tailed Bee-eater can reach a length of 30 cm, including the two long, blue central tail feathers; it is the largest of the four. Apart from that it has black eye stripes with a slight blue edging on the top, a green crown, blue cheeks, a yellow chin, and chestnut underwings. The easiest way to distinguish it from the other bee-eaters is by its chestnut throat and the lack of the black line across the neck.

You will notice it, because of the loud, far-carrying sound that it makes on its arrival. The Blue-tailed Bee-eater really likes water and during a bath you can often see how it enjoys plunging.

That is why it residents in open, often wooded, country that is located close to large water bodies. But sometimes you can even find it in Colombo inhabiting the tall trees. The chance is bigger to see these birds in Sri Lanka during the winter as many Blue-tailed Bee-eaters arrive in August and stay until May.

The European Bee-eater

The European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) is the most colorful of the four and in its appearance it resembles the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater. But it is larger than the latter with its 28 cm including the tail pins. It is characterized by a white forehead, chestnut and yellow upperparts and sky-blue underparts that are separated from the yellow throat by a precise black line. Additionally it has pale grey-brown underwings, green and chestnut wings and short emerald green tail-streamers. The younger fellows are a lot greyer and duller and their tails are square-ended.

You can hear it when it flies because this is the time when it makes frequent sounds that are like a trill. This type of bee-eater rarely visits the island. You can only spot it during the winter in the dry, open country and cultivation. Because it feeds mainly on bees it does not have to live near water.

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) is one of the smaller species with only 21 cm. As already mentioned, this one is often mistaken for the European Bee-eater because the two of them have a chestnut and green upperpart. The crown, the nape and the upper back are chestnut while the rest of the upperparts are bright green. Other characteristics of the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater are a bright yellow throat and blue underparts. Then it has black eye stripes and some members of this species also have a blue tinge on the rump and the lower belly. The characteristic that distinguish it from all the other three is that instead of the two long central tail feathers this bee-eater has a black square-ended tail.

This bird has a call that can be described as a shrill trillip, trillip. It is a common resident in the wooded areas of open country, lowlands and mid hills.

From time to time different types of these bee-eaters can be found together and it is interesting to see how. It seems as if they divide the air space between them with the following order: the Little Green Bee-eater gets the low perches, the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater can be found in the middle area and the Blue-tailed Bee-eater is found in the upper parts of the tree.

Now next time you observe one bee-eater try identifying it and see if you can get a closer look at all the different colors!