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European Bee-eater Merops apiaster Scientific name definitions

Hans-Valentin Bastian and Anita Bastian
Version: 2.0 — Published January 14, 2022
Revision Notes

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Introduction

European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) is the most widespread Meropidae species, with a breeding distribution that extends from Portugal in the west, east as far as Mongolia and western China, and from Denmark in the north to North Africa in the south, as well as a disjunct resident population in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. It spends the winter predominantly in central, western, and southern Africa, with widely scattered migratory pathways that connect breeding and wintering. The large breeding range, together with its dispersed migratory tracks, means that this species is present over large areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa during at least some portion of the year, and in the Palearctic is only missing from eastern Asia and far northern regions.

As all Meropidae, Merops apiaster is also characterized by its colorful plumage, which gave the species the name "Golden Bee-eater" in some parts of its range.

The species lives socially year-round in remarkably stable groups, and requires specific ecological conditions. They are obligate insectivores and are specialized on flying insects, especially Hymenoptera, as food for themselves and their offspring, which they catch in rapid flight hunts. For the self-dug breeding burrows, they need steep walls with a consistency that is on the one hand solid enough that the burrows exist at least for one breeding season but are nevertheless still workable for the birds.

It is characteristic for the species that they have the plasticity to adapt to changing environmental conditions, despite all of their specialization to specific ecological conditions. They are opportunistic in their choice of food and breeding sites and can take advantage of attractive local conditions, even if these do not correspond to the stereotypical profile of the species' ecological niche.

The usual social life in groups, high breeding place philopatry, high reproduction rate, breeding support by helpers, the close family coherence and a certain ecological plasticity allows the species to colonize new habitats quickly. This is thought to be an adaptation to its primary breeding habitat along naturally meandering river landscapes, where breeding walls from previous years can be destroyed by flood events in spring. Only the ability to adapt quickly to changing local conditions makes it possible for the species to exist in such volatile breeding habitats. In addition, this way of life has also made it possible to benefit from changing climatic conditions and to expand its breeding range rapidly far northwards parallel to the warming summers. Thus Merops apiaster is considered a profiteer of climate-change, where it has within a few decades successfully colonized new breeding areas at every edge of its northern distribution.

Distribution of the European Bee-eater - Range Map
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  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the European Bee-eater

Both the breeding and non-breeding areas of populations breeding in southern Africa are not well-known and somewhat speculative, and more work is needed to confirm the range limits here. In addition, other regular non-breeding areas of the Eurasian populations may exist in southwestern Yemen and northwestern Somalia, but are based on relatively little information.

Recommended Citation

Bastian, H.-V. and A. Bastian (2022). European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.eubeat1.02