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the web of life in southern Africa

Merops apiaster (European bee-eater) 

Europese byvreter [Afrikaans]; Gamanyuchi, Hwirogwiro [Shona]; Tinziwolana (generic term for bee-eater) [Tsonga]; MorŰkapula (generic term for bee-eater) [Tswana]; Bijeneter [Dutch]; GuÍpier d'Europe [French]; Europšischer bienenfresser [German]; Abelharuco-europeu [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Coraciiformes > Family: Meropidae

Merops apiaster (European bee-eater)  Merops apiaster (European bee-eater) 

European bee-eater. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

European bee-eater. [photo Callie de Wet ©]

The European bee-eater is common in southern Africa, with a huge worldwide population of 4 million. Its movements are complex, with breeding populations in the Western and Eastern Capes, and non-breeding populations in the northern half of southern Africa. It feeds exclusively on insects, hunting them aerially or from low perches. It breeds in colonies of 20-30, sometimes 100 pairs, excavating burrows into sandbanks and cliffs. It lays 2-6 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes, for 19-28 days (recorded in Europe). The chicks stay in the nest for 30-31 days, (recorded in Europe) after which some will stay to help their parents into the next breeding season.

Distribution and habitat

Common and widespread, with a worldwide population of 4 million, occurring in Europe, south-west Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In southern Africa it is a non-breeding visitor to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and north-eastern and central South Africa, avoiding excessively arid or wet areas. It also has a breeding population in the Western and Eastern Cape, where it generally prefers temperate habitats, especially in the fynbos biome.

Distribution of European kingfisher in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  



Recorded by June Stannard in 1967, [© Transvaal Museum]


Movements and migrations

Its movements are complex, with breeding and non-breeding populations in southern Africa.

  • One population breeds in various areas of Eurasia and northern Africa, moving to down to south-central and southern Africa in October in the non-breeding season, leaving again in March. This population occurs in Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and the northern parts of southern Africa.
  • The southern African breeding population arrives from their non-breeding grounds in central Africa in September. They mainly breed in the Western and Eastern Cape, leaving southern Africa in the period from January-February.


Feeds exclusively on insects, eating mainly bees, wasps, flying ants and termites. It mainly hunts aerially, acrobatically hawking insects and sometimes ascending to 150 m above ground! It also catches insects from a perch, regularly returning to kill and feed on the caught prey item. The following food items have been recorded in its diet:


  • Monogamous colonial nester, nesting in groups of 10-30, sometimes 100 pairs! It often nests with other bird species, such as Banded martin, Brown-throated martin and Pied starling. Breeding pairs are assisted by non-breeding individuals and sometimes juveniles.
  • Both sexes excavate the nest, which is a 0.7-2.0 m long tunnel ending in a chamber about 25 cm wide. It is dug into riverbanks, gullies, or quarries with dry clay.
  • Egg-laying season is usually from October-May.
  • It lays 2-6 eggs, which are incubated for 19-28 days (recorded in Europe).
  • The chicks stay in the nest for about 30-31 days, (recorded in Europe) after which they may come back to the nest to roost.


Not globally threatened, in fact it has a huge global population of 4 million. In southern Africa there was a dramatic decrease in population in the 1960s and 1990s, the cause of which is unknown.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.