Southern Carmine Bee-Eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Morokapula, Se.selamarumo

The Southern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicoides) is one of the seven bee-eaters that have been recorded in Botswana.  Those are:  Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, European Bee-eater, Little Bee-eater, Olive Bee-eater, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and White-fronted Bee-eater.  These seven are among the twenty-seven species of bee-eaters worldwide, with most occurring in Africa and Asia. Of the seven species recorded here, some such as the Carmine Bee-eater are residents, and breed here, while others are migratory that breed elsewhere but after breeding they migrate to Botswtana and other neighbouring countries. Among the Southern Carmine Bee-eater residents, some stay here year-round while some are nomadic after breeding but then return for the next breeding season. The former are called Se.selamarumo in Setswana – which is the generic term for bee-eaters. The migratory ones that come after breeding elsewhere are called Morokapula as their arrival is believed to announce the coming of the rainy season.

Bee-eaters are very colourful and the Southern Carmine Bee-Eater is considered the most striking of all.  Perhaps due to their beauty, bee-eaters have long caught the attention of humans and so figure in folklore in many parts of the world. Wikipedia reports in its Bee-eater Culture section that as far back as Aristotle writers such as he advised beekeepers to kill bee-eaters so as to protect their hives. He also was aware of bee-eater tunnel nests and commented on other bee-eater behaviour. In Greek mythology there was a young man who was fatally struck by his father after he desecrated a sacrificial lamb to the god Apollo. But Apollo felt sorry for the young man and turned him into a bee-eater. Ancient Egyptians believed bee-eaters had medicinal properties including applying bee-eater fat to deter biting flies. Interestingly however, there are few artistic depictions of them in ancient carvings or murals. In modern times it is the artwork featuring the colourful bee-eaters that has led 38 countries to feature bee-eaters on their postage stamps.

Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are at 35 cm, head - to - tail, the longest of the bee-eaters here. They are slender in shape with a long, dark, decurved bill and a long tail with long streamers. The dark colour of the bill carries through to a wide black eye-stripe separating the turquoise blue forehead and crown from their bright pinkish-red plumage. The undertail plumage is also turquoise. No sexual dimorphism occurs with these bee-eaters and it is difficult to distinguish between males and females as they are of the same size and plumage. Lighter coloured individuals with shorter, or no trail streamers are juveniles. Being aerial insectivores these bee-eaters have long, pointed wings. Their legs and feet are short and said to be weak, however they are certainly strong enough to excavate their individual long tunnel nests that can be a metre or two in length into high riverbanks or even into flat ground.  Usually a new tunnel nest is dug out by a pair each year as the parents do not remove the chicks’ faeces or food remains and the nest becomes fouled.

Southern Carmine Bee-eaters will gather in large colonies when breeding, especially at certain high riverbanks where excavating their tunnel nests is easier.  Colonies of up to 1,000 breeding pairs at popular sites have been reported. Such gatherings of these colourful, interesting birds are a bird watchers dream. Pairs are monogamous and stay together over several breeding seasons. In the one to two-meter-long tunnel that a pair excavates together, the female lays two to four eggs, two days apart, in the slightly enlarged area at the end of the tunnel. These white eggs are not round but rather pointed at each end so they are less likely to easily roll out of the tunnel.  Southern Carmine Bee-eaters will also dig their tunnel nests in flat ground, which they do at an angle but the eggs are still the same shape although there is no danger of their rolling out of these nests on flat ground. It can take up to twenty days for a pair to excavate their tunnel nest – even with the occasional assistance of ‘helpers’. These helpers may be from a previous brood but that is not certain. No nesting materials are carried into the tunnels. Most of the information about incubation times and parental care comes not from observations in the wild but from zoos and other like institutions that keep Southern Carmine Bee-eaters in captivity in the U.S.A. and other places where incubation periods are recorded of 20 – 21 days, with incubation starting when the first egg is laid. With good food resources chicks grow rapidly and in 15-20 days can weigh more than their parents. However, when they become more active they eventually trim down to a more normal weight. If food resources are limited the chicks from the last laid eggs might not survive as the older, stronger chicks might get most of the food brought by the parents.

Bee-eaters have their predators that will take adults as well as chicks.  Their predators include monitor lizards, rats and snakes as well as birds of prey.  They also suffer from infestations of certain fleas and ticks as well as blood-sucking and biting flies.  Nests on flat ground can be trampled by wildlife or domestic stock and the nests in riverbanks can be destroyed by unseasonably high water levels, flash floods or even by fast motorboats that splash water into the tunnels.  Sometimes they can be disturbed by large numbers of people around their nest sites.

As insectivores, Carmine Bee-eaters are known to use large mammals and large terrestrial birds as moving hunting perches.  Southern Carmine Bee-eaters will ride on the animals or fly above them as they walk along disturbing insects on the ground that then fly up, to easily be caught by the bee-eaters.  Ground Hornbills have been observed with Carmine Bee-eaters flying above them as they walked along disturbing insects and Botswana’s national bird the Kori Bustard is a favourite hunting perch for these bee-eaters.  Even vehicles travelling along dirt roads or through grass will disturb many insects and these bee-eaters will fly along with the vehicle and catch many insects. The Hesters recently had this amazing experience of several bee-eaters flying right next to their moving vehicle, accompanying them for some distance.  Veld fires also attract Carmine Bee-eaters that feast on insects try to escape the fires.

As their name indicates bee-eaters favour bees and wasps but they do eat a variety of other large insect species that include butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, locusts, termites, cicadas and dragonflies. What they can’t digest from some insects they consume, they regurgitate pellets with the indigestible remains. Recent scientific news highlights a coming crisis based on research that shows that insect populations around the world are plummeting. Forty percent of insect species are in decline and could die out in coming decades. Bees, moths, butterflies and dung beetles are among those threatened species.  We really don’t realize the important role many insects play in our lives such as bees and some other insects that are critical pollinators of plants that we depend on for food, while bees also provide us with honey. Land use changes, deforestation, polluted water, agricultural use of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides as well as climate change are all part of the problem.  How will insectivorous birds such as the Southern Carmine Bee-eater survive should there be a continued rapid decline in insect numbers in the coming decades?

References consulted:

Hancock, Peter and Ingrid Weiersbye. 2016. Birds of Botswana. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.

Tarboton, Warwick. 2001. Nests and Eggs of Southern African Birds. Struik Publishers: Cape Town.

Bee-eater (Accessed 12/18/2018)

Bird Fact Friday – Southern Carmine Bee-eater (Accessed 1/15/2019)

Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Southern Carmine Bee-eater (Accessed 1/15/2019)

Showtime  CARMINE BEE-EATERS 1 (Accessed  12/18/2018)

Southern carmine bee-eater carmine_ bee-eater (Accessed 11/10/2018)

SOUTHERN CARMINE BEE EATER SEASON https://www.zambia (Accessed 12/18/2018)

The return of the southern Carmine bee-eaters (Accessed 12/18/2018)