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White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

  • Diurnal
  • Emerge from nest holes after dawn, perch nearby, preen, then fly together to reach feeding areas.
  • Each clan visits its own territory up to 2 km (1.2 mi) away during nesting season; more distant foraging areas used when not nesting. (Fry 1984)
  • 300 feeding sessions/day
  • On sunny days, sun-baths common.
  • Water and dust-bathing activities help rid birds of ectoparasites.
  • In late afternoon during breeding season, eat sand, snail-shell and other calcium-rich items.
  • Much greeting and visiting between birds in different burrows each evening during nesting season.
  • In non-breeding season, arrive at roosting sites before dusk.

Social Groups and Interactions

Have one of most complex societies among birds. (Hegner et al 1982)

Monogamous, cooperative breeders (use helpers and become helpers), living in colonies. (Emlen 1990)

  • Each bird lives in an extended family or clan with members of four overlapping generations.
  • A typical family averages 7 members, but may be as many as 17. (Wrege & Emlen 1994)
  • Colony size averages 107 birds. (Emlen 1990)
  • Each White-fronted Bee-eater belongs to a large social network; other colonial bird species tend to only maintain social ties between a mated pair and one season's offspring. (Emlen 1990) (Lessells 1990)
    • Individual birds know and remember its parents, siblings, offspring, friends, and nesting neighbors;
    • Voice recognition studies by Lessells (1990's) of European Bee-eaters helped confirm the observations for White fronted Bee-eaters by Emlen and his colleagues. (Fry 2001)

Breeding success in this species strongly influenced by family structure. (Wrege & Emlen 1994)
Females typically leave their birth group to join the family of the male (patrilocal)

  • Loose ties are maintained with birth group; may leave mate, if not nesting, to return home and help with nesting of a genetic parent; return to mate when task is completed. (Emlen & Wrege 1988)
  • "In-laws" usually are nesting and roosting nearby. (Emlen 1990)

Many individuals of both sexes play a role as a helper (Emlen 1990)

  • They differ from other colonial birds who typically play the helper role as young birds before achieving breeding status
  • White-fronted Bee-eaters may switch from breeder to helper and back to breeder many times over a lifetime.
  • Some 60% of breeding pairs have 1-5 helpers. (Fry 2001)

Two aspects of social structure (colonial behavior, cooperative breeding) are not linked in the bee-eater family. (Emlen 1990)

  • Some species are colonial but not cooperative (Merops nubicus nubicoides, Southern Carmine Bee-eater)
  • Other species are solitary but cooperative (Merops albicollis, White-throated Bee-eater)
  • White-fronted Bee-eaters are both colonial and cooperative.

Foraging and roosting flocks form in non-breeding seasons.

  • Related birds roost side-by-side, touching each other on a branch.

Territorial Behavior

Resident birds; most of these bee-eaters spend their whole lives within the spatial limits of the population to which they were born. (Wrege & Emlen 1994)

Breeding status and territory ownership are not linked; owning territory not necessary for breeding success. (Hegner & Emlen 1987) (Emlen 1990)

Clan members interact on foraging territory, but each pair and helpers has different, possibly overlapping ranges.

  • When two birds of same clan meet on foraging territory they call excitedly with quivering tail (Fry 1984)
  • Rarely, when two meet one displaces the other aggressively.

Clan members scatter their nests throughout the colony; their nests are not excavated next to each other. (Fry 1984)
Breeding pair and helpers defend nest entrance from non-clan members.(del Hoyo et al 2001)

  • May lunge at birds at entrance to nearby nest tunnels.

Aggression (Fry 1984)

  •  Bee-eaters generally show little aggression among themselves when on a foraging area (except when non-clan bird intrudes) but often quarrel at roost and colony sites.
    • When two birds grapple with beaks, twirl to ground or onto water's surface, may be defense of clan's foraging territory.
  • Males may guard their female partner in the breeding season (but both sexes may mate with others, given the chance).
  • Breeding pairs and helpers defend nest from non-clan members.


(Fry 1984, 1992, 2001)


  •  Excited calling and quivering tail used to greet clan members on clan foraging territory.

Vocalizations - Click here for audio, provided by BBC

  • Typical bee-eater call has "rolling, liquid quality". (Fry 2001)
  • In general for all bee-eaters, there are common contact calls, plus greetings, appeasement vocalizations, threat calls, predator alarms, vocalizations during courtship feeding and feeding of young.
  • Most common call a muffled nasal gaaa and a shrill kwannk.
  • Slightly rolled "krrt" or "karara".
  • Sharp alarm "waark".


Terrestrial locomotion

  • Feet barely leave the ground as bird "shuffles" along. (Fry 2001)
  • Feet face slightly inwards - "pigeon-toed" (Fry 2001)


  • Almost as aerial as the swallows (Hirundinidae).
  • Strong fliers capable of rapid twists and turns in air.
  • Can glide skillfully to drink over water.
  • Can plunge into water to bathe.


  • When perching, three forward facing toes do not spread; two outer toes are partly fused.
  • Uses both legs to push soil backwards in a bicycling-type motion when excavating a burrow. (Fry 2001)
  • Can move quickly on its short legs through a burrow covering 1-2 m (10-20 ft.) in a few seconds.

Dispersal and Migration

  • Do not migrate. 
  • Females leave birth group to join the family of the male (patrilocal).
  • Loose ties maintained with birth group. (Emlen & Wrege 1988)
    • May leave mate, if not nesting, to return home and help with nesting of a genetic parent.
    • Rejoin mate when helping task is completed.

Interspecies Interactions

Because bee-eaters are colonial and construct burrow-nests, these birds enhance biodiversity by reworking the soil, thus allowing many other organisms to flourish. (Casas-Crivillé & Valera 2004)

May have colonial nest sites in association with larger groups of Carmine Bee-eaters or smaller groups of Red-throated Bee-eaters. (Fry 2001)

White-fronted Bee-eaters

Page Citations

BirdLife International (2009)
Casas-Crivillé & Valera (2004)
Emlen (1981, 1990)
Fry (1984, 1992, 2001)
Hegner & Emlen (1987)
Lessells (1990)
Wrege & Emlen (1994)

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