Bee-eaters qualify as a birders dream. Aside from its colourful plumage, the bee-eater will bedazzle you with its swift and skilful aerial acrobatics during a hunt. The bee-eater feeds on flying insects and its preferred delicacy are honey bees. However, bee-eaters feed on other insects besides bees. For example, butterflies, wasps, and dragonflies. Nonetheless, these fascinating birds live up to their name by consuming as many as 250-300 bees in a day.
There are 24 species of bee-eaters. White-fronted bee-eaters are the most researched because of their distinctive breeding habits. These non-migratory birds call the harsh African savannah home. They understand the demands of survival in Africa’s sometimes unforgiving climate. White-fronted bee-eater’s unique family patterns allow for successful reproduction. A winning formula, of monogamy, shared parental responsibility, helpful next of kin and strong, stable family units.
Bee-Eater Family Structures
White-fronted bee-eaters function under a complex family structure. As an adult, a bee-eater will maintain close relations with its parents and other immediate relations. A typical family of bee-eaters consists of two to three mating pairs as well as several single kin (unpaired or widowed). The company of these singletons plays an integral role when pairs decide to roost.
The success in the breeding of these social birds is due to the active involvement of single kin, known as helpers. As they say, “Many hands make light work”, white-fronted bee-eaters are well tuned to this fact. The availability of trusted support makes the task of raising the hatchlings easier. The helpers assist parents, not only with feeding but also with the protecting of young against uninvited guests.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Female white-fronted bee-eaters might be exactly the same. White-fronted bee-eater’s courtship is long and laborious. The period of wooing a potential mate can sometimes stretch up to six to eight weeks. During this time, the male suitor will present the female with caught insects in the hope of impressing her.
The mating ritual can be quite spectacular to watch. It is during these moments one can observe impressive aerial feats of agility. The male white-fronted bee-eater demonstrates mastery in the air. Matching every rapid twist and turn its winged prey employs to escape.
When victorious, the male bee-eater will prepare its catch as offerings to the waiting female. When dealing with prey, the bee-eater displays care to avoid any sting or bite while eating on the perch site. This systematic approach entails holding the prey behind the thorax and whacking its head against the tree branch. Tossing the prey in the air to change the holding position to the tip of the abdomen and rubbing the sting out of the tail against the perch. The male delivers a final coup de grace by smashing the head of the prey.
I was lucky enough to witness the courtship behaviour of the white-fronted bee-eater. The male caught a large hooktail dragonfly and although having no sting in its tail, the dragonfly was still smashed against the branch. Once satisfied, the male presented the battered insect to the prospective female. The success of this courtship feeding is an important determinant in a female deciding when it will mate. The female, during my observation, took to its skilled suitor and mating followed soon after.
When paired, the female bee-eater will leave her birth group to join the family of its selected mate. Once paired, white-fronted bee-eaters prove high fidelity over years. When nesting each parent shares all aspect of parental responsibilities. A stable and cohesive family unit contributes to their flourishing population .
Author: Reehana Shihab
Editor: Tim Plowden