Bee Eaters

Their Care and Breeding
by Martin Vince, Riverbanks Zoo

These are large headed, long billed and very beautiful birds. In most of the 24 species the plumage is green with shades of red, yellow, black, blue or rufous. Tails are normally long with elongated central feathers as in the white-throated Merops albicollis
(photo) and carmine Merops nubicus. Facial patterns are distinctive, with many species sporting a black mask (lores and ear-coverts) that makes the bill seem greater and more formidable. Species smaller than 35g tend to be sedentary and not very gregarious; species larger than 35g tend to be migratory and more or less highly colonial. (Fry; Keith; Urban 1988).

Bee eaters are insectivorous, eating mainly flying insects. The carmine bee eater also eats grasshoppers, locusts and rarely small fish. And it will even ride on the backs of animals, such as ostriches, antelope, elephants and warthogs, waiting to catch any insects that are flushed out. Carmine bee eaters are strongly attracted to bush fires preying upon fleeing insects. (Fry 1984). The white-throated bee eater Merops albicollis, is thought to be the only member of Meropidae to eat vegetable matter. In the rainforests of West Africa, squirrels feed on oil-palm nuts Elaeis guineensis. The bee eaters below, catch and eat the epicarp of the fruit dropped by the squirrels (Fry 1964 and Pettet 1969) The red-throated Merops bullocki is the third aviculturally familiar bee eater species. 2-10 birds per thousand have golden yellow throats instead of red. (Fry 1984). No specimens of this variant appear to be in captivity.

Most bee eaters avoid heavy forest, preferring lightly wooded or open country. They are normally found near rivers, swamps, lakes, coastal mangroves and flooded rice fields where food is abundant. Bee eaters typically perch on fences, telegraph wires and branches, waiting to chase virtually any airbourne insect upto 300' (91m) away. All species can eat dangerous insects such as bees, wasps and hornets, which are rendered harmless before being eaten: the tail (and sting) of the insect is rubbed against the perch to expresses the venom and often the sting itself.

Local, seasonal movements of bee eaters are fairly common, and a few species migrate many thousands of miles. The European bee eater Merops apiaster and blue-cheeked bee eater M. superciliosus breed in Europe and Asia, and migrate to Africa for the winter; and the Australian bee eater M. ornatus winters in the Lesser Sunda Islands and breeds in Australia. Most species can be found in North Africa, with a handful in the Middle East, Asia and South East Asia.

Carmine: One of the largest species at 35cm. White-throated: 20 cm, and tail streamers 12 cm; very slender body of about 20g. Red-throated: 20-22 cm

35% insectivore diet **, 20% livefood, 10% finely chopped hard boiled egg, 5% finely sliced pinkies (1mm thick), 15% soaked dog kibble, 15% small bird of prey meat balls.

** Insectivore diet
The insectivore diet is made of softbill pellets that are ground into tiny pieces the size of millet seed. Manufacturers such as Marion Zoological and ZooPreem sell small pellets that are marketed for canaries and finches. These pellets can also be used in the insectivore diet, and are small enough that they do not have to be ground up. To make the pellets palatable, they should be moistened with tap water and / or fruit juice. Thoroughly mix the ingredients by squeezing them together, breaking up any lumps to arrive at a fine, loose and crumbly consistency.

Diet preparation
The insectivore diet will fill about half of the food dish. The remaining ingredients (livefood, egg, kibble, Nebraska bird of prey meat and sliced pinkies) lay on top of this mixture and stimulate feeding by being clearly visible. The wet foods (pinkies, kibble and meat) adhere to the insectivore diet to deliver better nutrition. The insectivore diet also sticks to the insects when they are dipped in thick nectar or honey. Dipping the insects in this way guarantees good nutrition with every mouthful, since the insects alone are a wholly inadequate diet.

Acclimating new arrivals
In the wild, bee eaters' nutritional requirements are met by a very wide variety of food items, nearly all of them insects: >350 prey taxa, red-throated bee eater; 300 taxa, European bee eater; at least 260, white-throated. (Fry; Keith; Urban 1988). While the commercially available livefoods (mealworms, waxworms and crickets) alone can sustain bee eaters for weeks or months, they cannot provide a balanced diet and soon lead to malnutrition. This often presents as vitamin A deficiency, commonly manifesting itself in the form of eye problems. To encourage the acceptance of artificial foods and a more balanced diet is therefore urgent and critical for long-term health.

Bee eaters that have been in captivity for several months accept freshly killed or frozen livefoods. However, newly arrived or newly imported birds take far more readily to moving food items (giant mealworms, waxworms and 1" crickets). The livefood should be dipped in a thick nectar or honey solution and rolled in the insectivore diet -- do not suffocate the insects. Giant mealworms are better than small ones, since they are easier to dip and stick to the supplements. With the powders now sticking to the insects, the birds will receive a nutritious food with every mouthful. A taste for the artificial ingredients will eventually be developed and the birds' reliance on livefood diminished. Finely chopped or mashed hard boiled egg is also important, and eaten by most insectivores, even when newly imported. The albumen is particularly well eaten and presumably resembles favored insect larvae such as wax worms.

The time taken to acclimate a bird will vary, but the process can be quickened if a "teacher" bird is present. This is an established softbill of the same or similar species that is used to the captive diet, and can teach the newcomer by example.

Supplements and coloring agents
These can be valuable, primarily if the birds are reluctant to eat the artificial foods. Nekton Tonic I is a supplement designed for insectivores. It is available from Guenter Enderle Enterprises, Inc, 27 West Tarpon Ave, Tarpon Springs, Florida 34689. Tel (813) 938 1544, FAX 938 1545. Nekton Tonic I can be sprinkled over the diet twice a week if a bee eater is not yet eating the full range of foods. Even when fully acclimated and established, regular use is still beneficial. Most keepers have found that Roxanthin does not satisfactorily preserve the red plumage of bee eaters. However, Betatene is effective and keeps the birds in good color. (Sheppard, C. Bronx Zoo / WCS).

White-throated Where to position the food dish
Bee eaters generally catch food on the wing, and are less willing to use a food dish on the floor (unless the dish is on the floor of a cage that is raised several feet above the ground). Position the food at least 90cm above the ground, and in an open area, so the birds can feed by hovering if they wish. Shier birds will get much of their food by hovering, but once established, they will perch on and in the dish.

Acclimated and established bee eaters are not hard to keep, and in warm climates do very well outdoors, adoring the occasional warm shower and the opportunity to sunbathe. In temperate climates, a heated house is essential, since bee eaters must be protected from cold weather and persistent rain -- they will often stand out in the rain to the point of being saturated, sick and unable to fly. Bee eaters have relatively long wings, and should be provided with large, fairly open aviaries. Food dishes must be raised several feet above the ground, and positioned in the open so the birds can feed while hovering. Bee eaters will live with other birds, although it is preferable to give them their own aviary; this minimizes food competition, helping the shier birds to get the range of foods vital for good health.

Sexing: Virtually all species, monomorphic. The red-bearded Nyctyornis amicta is dimorphic.

Eggs: White; 2-5 in the tropics. Clutch size increases at higher latitudes,and bee eaters in Eurasia lay up to 10 eggs.

Nest: Burrow excavated in an earthen bank (nest bank at the Cologne Zoo)

Incubation: Usually shared by both sexes for 18-22 days.

Exhibit design at the Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo
The exhibit itself is basically round; it is approximately 30' in diameter and 30' high. The nest cliff is about 12' 6" long, 12' high and 6'-6' 8" deep. The burrows used by the birds in 1997 ranged in height from 8' above the exhibit floor to 12' or more (birds burrowed into the sand on top of  the cliff, which slopes upward a couple of feet). In 1998 birds dug burrows into the sand on the floor of the exhibit. In the man-made burrows on the cliff face, the initial 12-15" is lined with PVC pipe. The entire area behind the cliff face is filled with sand. Rear access to the nest tunnels is not possible in this particular exhibit due to electrical and plumbing constraints. However, if possible, it is ideal to have individual nest boxes at the rear of each tunnel to facilitate chick observations and filming, as well as the detection of mice which can be a serious nuisance in bee eater colonies. Theo Pagel and his staff at the Cologne Zoo, check their nest boxes every week. The birds have acclimated to the intrusion, whereas the mice have not, and tend to be driven away.

Fry. C.H. 1964. White-throated bee-eater eating oil-palm nut fibers. Bull. Niger.Orn.Soc. 1(3),16.
Pettet, A. 1969. Feeding association of Aerops albicollis and Cinnomopteryx castaneofuscus with the squirrel Funisciurus anerythrus.Ibis 111,98-101.