European Bee-eater: foraging, sociality and epidemiology

The European Bee-eater, Merops apiaster, is primarily found in arid areas of southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. So it’s name is a little misleading in terms of it’s geographic distribution. Bee-eaters predominantly eat insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets, which make up the majority of their diet.


This bird has brilliant plumage, and its black “bandit mask” streaking across it’s eyes adds the finishing touch! This bird will need more than good looks to bypass the sting and venom of a bee, though… To deal with the hazards of bees,wasps and hornets, and make them palatable, bee-eaters implement a neat method which can bee seen in the following short video clip:
http://www.youtuberepeater.com/watch?v=8LV3iXXAyaM&s=77&e=110

So, these birds bash the captured venomous prey on a branch (occasionally rubbing them against it), in order to agitate the prey item to release their sting and discharge the venom! After this, the bee-eater may consume the bee, or offer it as a gift to his mate.

Another interesting behaviour of European Bee-eaters involves diving into the sea and in salt ponds with high levels of salinity. This behaviour has been hypothesized to be a response to the arid environment (it could be a form of evaporative cooling, like how red kangaroos may lick their arms and use the evaporation of their saliva to cool off). If you’re interested in how bee-eaters tie into epidemiology, there is more information below, but this is already a long post.
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By now you know that European bee-eaters live in arid environments, but you’re probably wondering where they nest. Well, they actually use their beak to ‘dig’ a nest in the sides of dry, sandy banks! Colonies are usually tightly-knit, which has been shown to be advantageous for information transmission (neighbours share new food sources with one another).

However, this sociality has its disadvantages, too. Like the transmission of a flu across a human population, other pathogens can be density-dependent (the larger the population, or the closer the proximity between individuals, the higher the infection rate). In terms of European bee-eaters, some parasitic lice which infect them are highly successful in large colonies. In addition, bee-eater sociality and migration can influence the transmission of spores of a parasitic fungus (Nosema ceranae), that infects some honeybee colonies. So, although being friendly with their neighbours can be advantageous for intel, European bee-eaters are also jeopardizing their own health, and the health of their main food source (honeybees).

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