One of the more fascinating and beautiful families of birds in Africa is one we don’t see in the Western Hemisphere, Meropidae, the family of Bee-eaters. The name Meropidae is derived from Merops, Ancient Greek for ‘bee-eater’, a name first used in 1668. Consisting of 30 species within three genera, bee-eaters are found primarily in Africa and Asia, with some species found in southern Europe, Australia and New Guinea. Bee-eaters are eye catching and spectacular, decorated with colorful plumage, often elongated central tail feathers and downcurved bills. Both sexes are usually identical, and, as the name suggests, they eat bees. They also feed on wasps and other flying insects, catching them in the air and returning to feed while perched in the open. To make a meal of venomous stinger-equipped insects, Bee-eaters pound and rub their prey against a hard surface while putting pressure on the bee or wasp to discharge most of the venom.
Bee-eaters are very social and form colonies, burrowing nesting holes into sandy riverbanks or quarry walls, with dozens of nesting burrows found at a single site. Typically, there are five eggs in a clutch and both parents share nesting duties. When we traveled to Australia, a single bee-eater, the Rainbow Bee-eater, always caught our attention, but there must be many more bees in Africa, where we saw six different species. Their brilliant colors, long tail streamers, long bills and their habit of sailing in large groups with wings outstretched make them one of the most striking aerialists in the world of birds. In Hinduism, the shape of the bird in flight resembles a bow with the long bill an arrow, and their name in Sanskrit means ‘Vishnu’s bow’.
In Southern Africa, we found bee-eaters frequently, and in every country where we traveled more than a day. Our most spectacular find was in Botswana, at the northern end of the Okavango Delta. We had heard word about a large colony of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, but as was often the case, clear directions were missing. Finally, after numerous faulty searches, we found the quarry we had been searching for. It was mid-morning, and we were the only people there. An unsigned single-track dirt road led us off the main road deep into the scrub where we parked next to an enormous and deep quarry of white clay walls. All along the walls, from top to bottom, were hundreds of nesting holes. As we stood along one edge with our cameras two hundred to three hundred brilliantly red Southern Carmine Bee-eaters were sailing through the air catching bees, perching long enough to remove the stingers and then sailing into individual nest holes to feed their young. The sight of hundreds of these gorgeous birds sailing through the air, catching bees, feeding young and perching in large groups was almost more than we could absorb. One leafless tree 20-feet from us had 19 bee-eaters perched in the open. Needless to say, we spent an hour at this site taking photos and videos.
Four months later, we were in San Diego where we spent a day at the famous zoo. They had a new exhibit, Africa World, and we spent an inordinate part of our day there. Moving from one exhibit to another, suddenly we found ourselves in an aviary. This aviary was unlike any we had ever seen and consisted of a series of high wall faces built of white clay. Flying in and out of nesting holes carved into the clay walls were dozens of Carmine Bee-eaters, identical to what we had experienced in Botswana. If you have a birding trip or any other wildlife-oriented trip planned for Africa, the San Diego Zoo would be a perfect place to prep for it.