Breeding colonies of White-fronted Bee-eaters are often found nesting in the banks of eroded gullies, where they excavate tunnels over a metre long into the vertical sand-face, creating a nest at the end of the tunnel. The tunnels are excavated by both sexes, loosening the sand with their bills and removing the sand with their feet using a bicycling action. No easy task! Although the sand wall may be home to many tunnels, some of these are “dummies” that do not lead to nests.

We found just such a breeding colony in an eroded gully adjacent to the Crocodile River in Mpumalanga, South Africa, and spent an absorbing few hours watching these magnificent birds flying out, collecting food and returning to the tunnels. We assumed that they were feeding young birds, although we saw no sign of these.

The colours of the birds in the early morning sun are astounding as they maneuver to pluck flying insects from the air or crawling insects from the ground, twisting and turning with incredible agility and seeming to reveal new colours with every move as the sun strikes a new angle.

Flying rapidly towards a vertical wall of sand with their wings outstretched, an accident seems inevitable, but with just centimetres to spare their wings are retracted and the bird enters the relatively small tunnel entrance without pause.

Keeping well away so that we did not disturb them, and with the birds moving at quite high speed, it wasn’t possible to see exactly what type of insects were being caught, but judging by the number of returning birds, food was not in short supply.  According to the literature (and the bird’s name) the majority of the insects would have been bees, although we found no abundance of bees in the immediate area.

White-fronted Bee-eaters are monogamous, but are co-operative breeders, so many of the birds we saw returning to the nests with food were probably not the parents of the youngsters being fed, but were rather just helping with parental duties. These helpers are usually from the previous seasons brood.

The nests of these birds may be parasitized by the Greater Honeyguide, and the female White-fronted Bee-eater may intentionally lay an egg or two in the nest of a neighbouring breeding pair.

The 2-5 eggs that are laid in each clutch are subject to predation by egg-eating snakes and by monitor lizards in particular.

 

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