This time around in The Hive, we won’t be talking about beekeepers: instead, we’ll concentrate on bee-eaters. You're definitely all familiar with the former, but you probably don't know the latter. Bee-eaters are birds considered to be the most brightly coloured species of European birds, even though they spend most of the year at their overwintering grounds in Africa. Since they make their nests in Europe, however, they’re considered European birds and are the only representatives of bee-eaters on the European continent, with all others living in Asia or Africa.
Every year, I take a boat and sail from nearby Cres to visit my colleague Iztok on Male Srakane. In the fierce summer heat, we always drink some beers and chat about nothing and everything in the pleasant shadow of his patio. However, I definitely don’t only go there to have a beer and hang out with him. I have another reason—bee-eaters that come back to the island after a long voyage from Africa to breed and raise a new generation. Due to the particular requirements of these birds, there aren’t many places in Europe nowadays where they can nest, which is why the European bee-eater is considered to be an endangered bird species. Male Srakane, however, is a nearly ideal place for them: in addition to Vele Srakane, which is a somewhat larger nearby island, and Susak and Unije, which are larger still, it is covered in loess. Geologists cannot agree how loess deposits came to accumulate on the limestone base on these islands. Most of them do agree, however, that the current sand cover of these islands comes from alluvial deposits, brought onto the limestone base by the wind when the area of what is nowadays known as the Northern Adriatic was still land. And these are the earth layers and sandy walls that bee-eaters need in order to dig deep tunnels for their nests. If we add to it suitable grassland and low bushes, as well as reeds with their numerous bugs, and summer heat, this is an extremely appropriate nesting place for these wonderful representatives of the bird world. While flying, bee-eaters catch bugs to feed their babies and themselves. They mostly feed on carpenter bees (hence the name), wasps, bumblebees, and bigger bugs such as large grasshoppers, cicadas, and dragonflies.
The European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) is a colourful bird that is impossible to miss; when it is flying, one can already recognise its characteristic deltoid wings and its manner of flying resembling the flight of a paper kite swiftly descending towards the ground only to suddenly soar up high. There is no difference in appearance between the male and the female bird. Together, they dig out a gallery of about 1.5 metres in depth into the sandy surface every year, and the female bee-eater lays 3–4 eggs into the nest. After about twenty days of brooding, the babies are hatched; from thereon out, the parents diligently bring them bugs into the nest at about five-minute intervals. By the end of July, the babies know pretty much how to fly; in the middle of August, they are already faced with their first long and dangerous journey to the overwintering grounds in Africa. If all goes well, they’ll be back at Srakane at the beginning of May next year.
At the end of July this year, I got really lucky watching and photographing bee-eaters (unfortunately without my telephoto lens): since the sea was calm, I could approach the nesting wall with my boat. A small colony consisting of about 4–5 couples of bee-eaters was diligently taking their prey to two active nests. The other youngsters had probably already learned how to fly: I noticed some of the birds while they were peering over the bushes of reeds above the nesting wall. Even though the colony of bee-eaters on the island is a small one (I think there are probably no more than about 20 birds), preserving a suitable habitat for them to be able to nest at Male Srakane is of primordial importance for them to come back every year. Since there are only two permanent residents on the island, with this number hardly increasing during the nesting period, we probably don’t have to worry that bee-eaters won’t come back to the island. However, as I've already mentioned, bee-eaters and other migrating birds of prey are faced with a much bigger danger: poaching. Therefore, we can only hope that we’ll still be able to see bee-eaters in their rare nesting places.
Dr. Tom Turk
Dr. Tom Turk is a professor of biochemistry at the Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana. He is a biologist and an author of books about life in the Adriatic Sea and Mediterranean Sea, traveller and nature photographer who, every now and then, still dives below the sea surface and takes an underwater photograph or two. He is especially interested in nature protection and conservation of biodiversity. He’s also a member of the editorial board of the Slovenian edition of National Geographic.