Rainbow bee-eater leaving its perch
Rainbow bee-eater in the Hindu ‘bow-and-arrow’ shape. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A portfolio of bee-eaters

In the midst of a shocking round of golf the other day, I was reminded of the beauty and quirkiness of the bee-eater.

In northern Australia, the rainbow bee-eater (the country’s only endemic of the species) breeds before and after the rainy season, which means they have love on their minds about now.

And in the early morning while there is a little dew on the ground and the rising sun is yet to bake the land, the bee-eaters are out in force, making their distinctive rattling sound before chasing down flying insects.

While lining up a shot from the fairway (the only one I’d hit so far), I aimed over what looked like an unrepaired divot about 3m in front. But it was a bee-eater’s burrow, and just before I started the downswing, its occupant exited like a bullet out of a silenced gun. Needless to say, my execution was adversely affected!

Blue-throated bee-eater with bee in beak
The blue-throated bee-eater, Tarbin forest, Sabah. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Acts like a piston

According to Wikipedia, there are 27 species of bee-eater, and most of them (always the females) build deliberately narrow nest tunnels. Their bodies press so tightly against the walls that when the birds enter and exit, their movement acts like a piston – pumping in fresh air and pushing out the stale stuff. Ingenious.

Bee-eaters are among the few species not seriously threatened by humans. All are rated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as ‘least concern’ on its vulnerability scale.

They are highly aerial, they take off strongly from perches, fly directly without undulations and can change direction quickly, although they rarely hover. As their name suggests, they love bees and wasps, and won’t pass up the occasional dragonfly, moth of butterfly. But contrary to some opinion, they have little impact on the honey bee population.

Hitting and rubbing

The stinger of their prey is removed by repeatedly hitting and rubbing the insect on a hard surface. The sexes are difficult to distinguish in most of the family, although in several species the iris is red in the males and brown-red in the females, and in species with tail-streamers these may be slightly longer in males.

Bee-eaters spend around 10% of their day on so-called ‘comfort’ activities, like sunning themselves (to increase energy), and dust or water bathing (to remove parasites and clean feathers).

Their eyesight is excellent, with the blue-cheeked member of the species able to spot a bee from 100m out. Like kingfishers, bee-eaters regurgitate pellets of undigested material.

Bee-eater on branch in tropical storm
Rainbow bee-eater sitting out a tropical downpour. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Rarely depicted

Despite their striking colours, bee-eaters are rarely depicted in classical art. But the ancient Egyptians believed the birds possessed medical properties, prescribing the application of bee-eater fat to deter biting insects, and treating eyes with smoke from charred bee-eater legs to cure an unspecified female complaint.

According to Wikipedia, in Hinduism the shape of the bird in flight was thought to resemble a bow, with the long bill as an arrow. This led to a Sanskrit name meaning ‘Vishnu’s bow’ and an association with archer gods.

(FOOTNOTE: I was motivated to present this little group of images from my bee-eater collection as a way of adding some colour and optimism during a month of seriously depressing news from the natural world. – Tony Neilson)

©Natural Images 2018


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


One thought on “THE ‘ARCHER BIRD’

  • Kay September 22, 2018 at 2:11 PM Reply

    What a lovely way to learn about a delightful small bird. I thoroughly enjoyed this article about a bird I have admired but known little about. Keep up this style of article please

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