Photo: © Shutterstock.com/Stefan Scharf. The northern carmine bee-eater (Merops nubicus) is easily distinguished by its dark throat from its sister species, Merops nubicoides, which boasts a shocking pink throat 

Even among the myriad dazzling species of Africa, this bee-eater stands out with its outrageous plumage hues. But which bee-eater, exactly…? Bill Naylor explains how the carmine bee-eater has now become two, and summarises the challenges of keeping these beauties in aviculture.

THE majority of bee-eater species have colourful plumage, but the most outstanding is the carmine. Its bright blue head and rump contrasts with the predominant varying shades of plum and pink. It is the most gregarious of the bee-eaters, and also one of the noisiest. A cloud of pink, swooping, chattering carmine bee-eaters is one of Africa’s most impressive avian sights.

This species occurs in two separate populations more than 1,000 miles apart in southern and North Africa. Considering they don’t interbreed and have different plumage (the northern birds have a blue throat, the southern birds a bright pink throat), it’s surprising it took so long to recognise them as two distinct species.

Previously known as the southern race of carmine bee-eater (Merops nubicus  nubicoides), this population is now officially confirmed as the southern carmine bee-eater (M. nubicoides). The northern bird (M. nubicus) has the larger range, extending from east to west Africa and northwards, approaching the Sahara. Both species are migratory; in winter the northern species moves south, and the southern species moves north.

The specialised diet of winged insects is the reason only about eight (mostly African species) out of the 27 species of bee-eaters have been kept in captivity. Captive breeding has, in general, been infrequent. In the 1970s the little bee-eater (M. pusillus) and white-fronted bee-eater (M. bullockoides) were bred in the UK at the short-lived Winged World at Heysham Head in Lancashire.

Carmine bee-eaters were also bred in Italy by a Signor Callegari in 1970 (Avicultural Magazine, Sept-Oct 1970). These were housed with European species and carmine x European hybrids were also raised by the European species. Gary Bralsford has reported in Cage & Aviary Birds (see October 18 and November 8, 2017, issues) that at least three species of bee-eaters, including the carmine were being kept and bred in the UK.

The European species, which first bred in the wild in Britain in 1955, is well represented in European zoos. In Australia the native bee-eater, aptly called the rainbow bird (M. ornatus), has been bred in Australian zoos and also kept by some private Australian aviculturists.

In the wild, bee-eaters usually hunt or “hawk” from a vantage point, which can be a tree branch, termite mound or the back of a large animal, such as an ostrich or even the accommodating kori bustard (Ardeotis kori). Herds of animals or vehicles act like beaters, disturbing insects for these birds to devour.

Like their close relatives, the kingfishers, bee-eaters have small feet and avoid landing on the ground, preferring to catch prey mid-air. The only time I saw a bee-eater feeding regularly on the ground was a little bee-eater kept inside. House crickets bred in the heating grills located in the floor of its enclosure and would tentatively venture out before scurrying back. The bee-eater sat motionless adjacent to a grill, leisurely picking the insects off one by one as they emerged.

Although bee-eaters feed on grasshoppers, locusts, spiders, butterflies and moths, they prefer bees. Once caught, bees are hit against the perch (all food even non-live items are dealt with this way). Bees and wasps are then scraped on the perch to remove the venom.

Bee-eaters can recognise non-stinging species of drones, wasps and solitary bees. These are simply hit against the perch and swallowed. After feeding, in the same way as kingfishers, bee-eaters regurgitate unwanted insect parts as pellets. Hand-reared young birds need to eject a pellet after each feed. Some zoos, such as San Diego, have successfully housed beehives and carmine bee-eaters together in large walk-though aviaries.

Newly caught bee-eaters steadfastly refuse inert food. (Although Callegari mentioned that his ate lettuce and defrosted insects and shrimps.) Captive-bred and hand-reared birds are more predisposed to taking inert prey, but only when flying insects are not available. Mealworms, moths, strips of beef heart and pinkies form the food of bee-eaters in captivity. In an outdoor aviary they catch flying insects.

Rather like toucans and hornbills, bee-eaters seem to enjoy catching food thrown to them. Mealworms casually dropped from the hand are caught before they hit the ground. Perforated containers located near the roof of the aviary containing mealworms that escape at intervals will provide enrichment.

Bee-eaters are inveterate dust-bathers and trays of play sand will be appreciated. They are reputed not to drink, but definitely require a variety of insects with high moisture content. As a result, they prefer insects with chitinous bodies as opposed to grubs and caterpillars.

When kept in a mixed species aviary, other softbills can compete for insect food. For this reason bee-eaters are often kept with doves, finches, Pekin robins (Leiothrix lutea) or pittas, which frequent the ground level of the aviary.

Insectivorous food, which is provided for other birds, is hardly touched by bee-eaters.

Bee-eaters don’t acquire any breeding plumage. Healthy birds display bright colourful plumage and glossy black beaks. Males present females with insects and mating often takes place in the open on a branch. Although pairs will mate with other individuals they have a strong bond with and, if separated in the wild or captivity, repeatedly make a contact call. After mating, a pair will proceed to excavate a burrow, preferably in a soft sandy bank. In captivity artificial sand banks, sometimes where the burrows lead to artificial nest chamber, are usually provided. Dallas World Aquarium, USA, has used large nest-boxes containing six artificial nest burrows and the tunnels plugged with sand because pairs prefer to excavate their own nest. These nest chambers are accessible from the rear of the box.

Both birds use their half-opened beaks to excavate the face of the tunnel and then each one takes it in turns to excavate the burrow. After each “shift” the bird relieved from tunnelling emerges covered in sand and bathes, swallow-like, flying quickly in and out of the water and retreating to a branch to preen. Tunnels vary from 1-2m (3-6½ft) in length. Similar to those of a kingfisher, these incline slightly upwards ending in a nest chamber. Nest sanitation is nil.

The entrances to carmine bee-eaters’ tunnels are often only 15cm (6in) apart but there is little territorial squabbling, and hen birds sometimes lay eggs in neighbouring nests. Little bee-eaters that bred at Winged World harassed a pair of carmine bee-eaters until the larger species were rehoused.

The white eggs are incubated for about 20 days. Chicks hatch at two-day intervals and a third or subsequent hatchling usually doesn’t survive. Youngsters are sometimes ejected from the nest and squabbling among youngsters can be violent. Hand-reared birds have to kept out of “beak reach” to avoid clashes. Video monitoring at Dallas World Aquarium enabled bullied youngsters to be pulled for hand-rearing.

Honeyguides regularly parasitise little bee-eaters and the young honeyguide kills the host’s nestlings. Bee-eaters practise cooperative breeding with non-breeding birds assisting in rearing the breeding birds’ youngsters. The young fledge at roughly 27-29 days. They leave the tunnel almost the size of the adults but are drabber in coloration. Fifteen years is their record for survival in captivity.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.

For more features from Cage & Aviary Birds, click here