Habitat and Ecology

  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Life History and Behavior

Life Expectancy

Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 7 years (captivity)
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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Individual actions benefit group: white-fronted bee-eater

Members of many animal communities improve the survival of the group by self-sacrificing time, energy, and resources.

  "Helena Cronin, codirector of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, has a new approach to Darwinism: Only the altruistic survive. Smart evolution, Cronin says, involves self-sacrifice to aid the greater cause. Darwin himself recorded numerous examples of animals giving up their time, their food, their mates, and even their lives to help others in the population. By applying these principles to the economy, Cronin says, we can evolve to new heights. Cronin suggests stressing cooperation, putting renewed emphasis on policy, and understanding that competition is to be approached not as mortal combat, but as a display--similar to lekking behavior exhibited by male grouse." (Courtesy of the Biomimicry Guild)

"White-fronted African bee eaters will face spitting cobras, forage tirelessly for bees and delay having their own young--all to help close relatives raise a clutch of baby birds. Why would any bird engage in such magnanimous behavior? Years of direct observation have led two scientists to suggest this altruism is an inherited trait that gives the "helper" bird's family a survival edge in the harsh African savannah.

"Helper birds postpone opportunities to breed in order to help family members," says Cornell University biologist Stephen T. Emlen. But the behavior is genetically "selfish" because it helps young relatives survive, thereby perpetuating the family's genes, Emlen says...Emlen and Wrege believe African bee eaters provide evidence for the evolution of helping behavior even among birds that gain no direct personal benefits from their action. Other researchers have suggested that some bird species do benefit directly by helping another couple raise a family. For example, they note, young helper birds may gain experience that boosts their chance of successfully raising offspring of their own later on. In bee eaters, however, a comparison of first-time breeders with and without prior helping experience showed that this factor had no effect on the number of young produced, report Emlen and Wrege." (Fackelmann 1989)

  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
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Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment

Red List Category
Least Concern

Red List Criteria


Year Assessed

BirdLife International

Butchart, S. & Symes, A.


This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size has not been quantified, but it is not believed to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
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The global population size has not been quantified, but the species is reported to be common and widespread (del Hoyo et al. 2001).

Population Trend
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White-fronted bee-eater

The white-fronted bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) is a species of bee-eater widely distributed in sub-equatorial Africa.

They have a distinctive white forehead, a square tail and a bright red patch on their throat. They nest in small colonies, digging holes in cliffs or earthen banks but can usually be seen in low trees waiting for passing insects from which they hunt either by making quick hawking flights or gliding down before hovering briefly to catch insects.


This species, like other bee-eaters, is a richly coloured, slender bird, but with a distinctive black mask, white forehead, square tail and a bright red throat. The upperparts are green, with cinnamon underparts. The call is a deep squeak.[2]


White-fronted bee-eaters are found in the vast savannah regions of sub-equatorial Africa. The habitat commonly consists of open country, often near gullies, because this is the region that their food (bees) lives.


Nesting and reproduction[edit]

A nesting colony in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

White-fronted bee-eaters nest in colonies averaging 200 individuals, digging roosting and nesting holes in cliffs or banks of earth. A population of bee-eaters may range across many square kilometres of savannah, but will come to the same colony to roost, socialize, and to breed. White-fronted bee-eaters have one of the most complex family-based social systems found in birds.

Colonies comprise socially monogamous, extended family groups with overlapping generations, known as "clans", which exhibit cooperative breeding. Non-breeding individuals become helpers to relatives and assist to raise their brood. In white-fronted bee-eaters, this helping behavior is particularly well developed with helpers assisting in half of all nesting attempts.[3] These helpers may contribute to all aspects of the reproductive attempt, from digging the roosting or nesting chamber, to allofeeding the female, incubating and feeding the young; and have a large effect on increasing the number of young produced.[4]

Only 50% of non-breeders in a colony typically become helpers, and whether or not an individual becomes a helper and to whom it provides aid is heavily dependent on the degree of kinship involved. Non-breeders are most likely to become helpers when breeding pairs are close genetic relatives. When faced with a choice of potential recipient nests, helpers preferentially help the breeding pair to whom they are most closely related, suggesting that this behaviour may serve to increase the helper's inclusive fitness.

Female white-fronted bee-eaters leaving their nesting burrows must avoid pursuit by unmated males who may force them to the ground and rape them. Furthermore, their unwelcome attentions are preferentially against females who are laying eggs and who thus might lay the eggs of their rapist rather than their mate.[5]

Feeding and diet[edit]

With prey

Their diet is made up primarily of bees, but they also take other flying insects depending on the season and availability of prey. Two hunting methods have been observed. They either make quick hawking flights from lower branches of shrubs and trees, or glide slowly down from their perch and hover briefly to catch insects.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Merops bullockoides". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Gosler, Andrew, ed. (1991), The Hamlyn photographic guide to birds of the world, foreword by Christopher Perrins, London: Hamlyn, ISBN 0-600-57239-0 .
  3. ^ Emlen, S. T. & Wrege, P. H. (1988), "The role of kinship in helping decisions among white-fronted bee-eaters", Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiolgy 23 (5): 305–315, doi:10.1007/BF00300577 .
  4. ^ Emlen, S. T. (1997), "Family Dynamics of Social Vertebrates", in Krebs, J. R.; Davies, N. B., Behavioural Ecology: An evolutionary approach (4th ed.), Cambridge: Blackwell Science, ISBN 0-86542-731-3 .
  5. ^ Emlen, S. T. & Wrege, P. H. (1986), "Forced copulations and intraspecific parasitism: two costs of social living in the white-fronted bee-eater", Ethology 71 (1): 2–29, doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.1986.tb00566.x .
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