Bee Hummingbirds (Mellisuga helenae) are only 5 to 6 cm long and weigh just 1.6 to 1.9 g (a small coin such as a U.S. penny weighs around 2.5 to 3 g). The male Bee Hummingbird is the smallest of all birds and can easily be mistaken for a bee. The male's head and throat are fiery red and he has an iridescent gorget with elongated lateral plumes. The remainder of his upperparts are bluish and the remainder of his underparts are mainly grayish white. The slightly larger female has green upperparts, whitish underparts, an inconspicuous white spot behind the eye and black spot on the lores, and a rounded tail with white tips on the outer tail feathers. The Bee Hummingbird's voice is a prolonged squeaking.
Bee Hummingbirds are endemic to (i.e., found only in) Cuba, where they may occur in woodland, swampland, shrubbery, and gardens, but mainly in coastal forests and forest edges. They occasionally are found in more open areas, but generally require mature growth with thick tangles of lianas (long-stemmed woody vines) and an abundance of epiphytes. They feed on nectar from a range of flowers, as well as on insects. The tiny nest is constructed 3 to 5 m above the ground on a thin twig and is often decorated on the outside with lichens. Construction (by the female alone) takes around 10 days. The two eggs are incubated for around 3 weeks. Hatchlings have a full set of feathers by around 2 weeks and practice flying for several days before leaving the nest at around 18 days.
Bee Hummingbird populations have clearly declined, presumably as a result of reduction in the mature forest habitat they require. Although once widespread on Cuba and the Isle of Pines, they may now survive at only a few localities.
(Bond 1993; Schuchmann 1999 and references therein; Raffaele et al. 2003)
Mellisuga helenae are residents of Cuba, an island located in the West Indies. Today, bee hummingbirds inhabit the entire island and Isla de la Juventud, which is the largest of the islands off Cuba's southern coast. There have also been several bee hummingbird sightings on the neighboring islands of Jamaica and Haiti.
Biogeographic Regions: neotropical (Native )
Other Geographic Terms: island endemic
Bee hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world. They also spend a higher percentage of their lives flying than any other species. They are comparable in size to large bees. Female M. helenae tend to be slightly larger than males. Males grow to be 5.51 cm long and weigh 1.95 g, on average, while females grow to be 6.12 cm long and weigh 2.6 g, on average. This small species is very compact and agile with an average wingspan of 3.25 cm. These birds have straight and rather short beaks when compared with other species of hummingbirds. Male M. helenae can be distinguished by their bright colors and the iridescent feathers on their throats. They have specially adapted flight muscles, which make up 22 to 34 percent of their total body weight. Mellisuga helenae (and other hummingbirds) are also equipped with a large keel and tapered wings, which aid in flying. As is common among other hummingbirds, their shoulder joints allow their wings to rotate 180 degrees and their small feet and legs can only be used for perching.
Average mass: 2.28 g.
Average length: 5.82 cm.
Average wingspan: 3.25 cm.
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger; male more colorful
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Cuba has a humid subtropical climate with no seasonal extremes, a favorable environment for bee hummingbirds. Bee hummingbirds prefer areas with the plant solandria grand flora, which provides their preferred source of nectar. Although bee hummingbirds may live at both high and low altitudes, they seem to prefer lowlands. They can be found in coastal and interior forests, in mountain valleys, swampy areas and gardens.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest ; rainforest
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Other Habitat Features: suburban
Habitat and Ecology
As with all members of the family Trochilidae, M. helenae have evolved a unique tongue structure in order to more efficiently obtain nectar from flowers. Their tongue is long and protractile. The bill is also used to extract insects and spiders from within flowers. The birds hover in front of flowers while feeding. Because the hummingbird flowers have no perch, it is difficult for other birds and insects to exploit their nectar so bee hummingbirds have little competition for their food source. Bee hummingbirds consume their weight in nectar and insects each day. They prefer nectar with sucrose concentrations of 15 to 30 percent. Because of their fast metabolism, bee hummingbirds require a high nutrient intake and spend up to 15 percent of their time eating.
In addition to nectar, bee hummingbirds eat insects and spiders.
Animal Foods: insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods
Plant Foods: nectar
Primary Diet: herbivore (Nectarivore )
Bee hummingbirds are important for the pollination of various flowers in Cuba and Jamaica. Flowers such as solandria grand flora and the scarlet bush have evolved to make their nectar accessible only to this species. In these relationships, the birds and plants are codependent.
Ecosystem Impact: pollinates
Anti-predator adaptations in M. helenae include their maneuverability and speed. Bee hummingbirds, along with other hummingbirds, are the only birds capable of flying backwards and making immediate stops while flying in the air. They also perform a nuptial dive, which is made up of several downward dashes with intermittent pauses and is used to scare predators from their territory.
Bee hummingbirds have reportedly been caught and eaten by hawks (family Accipitridae), falcons (family Falconidae), kestrels (genus Falco), orioles (genus Icterus), frogs (order Anura), fish (class Actinopterygii) and tropical spiders (order Araneae).
- hawks (Accipitridae)
- falcons (Falconidae)
- kestrels (Falco)
- orioles (Icterus)
- frogs (Anura)
- fish (Actinopterygii)
- tropical spiders (Araneae)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Male and female M. helenae interact using simple songs that are high-pitched and unattractive to the human ear. They are capable of a variety of vocal sounds including squeaking and twittering. Many of their songs consist of a single repeated note, each note lasting less than a second. Analysis of these melodies has shown that different leks and individual males within a single singing assembly vary their songs.
Communication Channels: acoustic
Other Communication Modes: choruses
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
When first hatched, new M. helenae are blind and nearly naked of plumage (feathers), but their growth is rapid. The young Bee Hummingbirds are fed by regurgitation for 20-40 days while the mother hovers over the nest. Hatchlings tend to leave the nest only after their wing feathers are fully-grown. This is about 22-24 days after hatching. The nestlings’ initial plumage closely resembles that of an adult Bee Hummingbird, with an exception to the dark colorations and the iridescent ornamentations. These characteristics are developed later in the life (decorative patterns) of the adult male (Terres 1982; Thomson 1964).
Bee hummingbirds are known to live up to 7 years in the wild, and 10 years in captivity.
Status: wild: 7 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 10 (high) years.
Male M. helenae form leks (groups of singing males that form during breeding season) to perform advertising songs to attract females. The songs may be brief warbles or a repetition of a few notes. Females visit several leks and select a mate based on his performance. A single male may mate with several females in one season.
Mating System: polygynous
Breeding occurs at the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season when many trees and shrubs are flowering. Breeding corresponds with the flowering patterns of sloandria grand flora, the bird's preferred source of nectar. Mating in bee hummingbirds can occur on a perch or while hovering in the air.
Female bee hummingbirds typically lay 2 pea-sized eggs. The eggs are elliptical in shape and are white. Incubation lasts 14 to 23 days and the chicks fledge after 18 to 38 days. Females make their first attempt to breed when they are 1 year old.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs at the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season.
Range eggs per season: 1 to 2.
Range time to hatching: 14 to 23 days.
Range fledging age: 18 to 38 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous
Female M. helenae are entirely responsible for the care of the altricial young. Females build a small cup shaped nest with relatively thick walls made of moss, bark and spider webs. Nests are often lined with down to help keep the eggs warm.
Parental Investment: no parental involvement; altricial ; pre-fertilization; pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female)
The first human threat to hummingbirds most likely occurred during the 19th century when stuffed hummingbirds were a status symbol worn on the hats of women. Today, the greatest threat to the survival of the species is the destruction of forests and replacement of other natural vegetation with crops. This has an impact on the availability of suitable nesting sites and nest construction materials.
In order to maintain the biodiversity of the West Indies, the government of Cuba is determined to keep its annual deforestation rate at a low 0.1 percent. In 1959, the revolutionary government took charge and the Reforestation Plan was enacted. Planting efforts increased from 50.8 million trees planted each year between 1960 and 1969 to 136.3 million between the years 1980 and 1988.
Bee hummingbirds are listed as lower risk/near threatened by the IUCN and under Appendix II by CITES.
CITES: appendix ii
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
CITES Appendix II. Conservation Actions Proposed
Enforce the protection afforded to the species by protected areas. Discourage further clearance of forest for agriculture, using the species as a figurehead. Monitor key populations.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no known adverse affects of bee hummingbirds on humans.
Bee hummingbirds, along with other species of hummingbird, are known for their grace and beauty. During the 19th century, stuffed hummingbirds were a status symbol worn on the hats of women. Farmers, scientists and tourists are often impressed by these tiny wonders of nature. Bee hummingbirds can be attracted to gardens with hummingbird flowers or hanging feeders of sugar water solution. Hummingbirds can also be important crop pollinators.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism ; pollinates crops
The bee hummingbird or zunzuncito (Mellisuga helenae) is a species of hummingbird that is endemic to dense forests and woodland edges on the main island of Cuba and (formerly) on the Isla de la Juventud, also part of the nation of Cuba. With a mass of approximately 1.6–2 g (0.056–0.071 oz) and a length of 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in), it is the smallest living bird.
The male has the green pileum and fiery red throat, iridescent gorget with elongated lateral plumes, bluish upper-parts, and the rest of the underparts mostly greyish white. The male is smaller than the female. The female is green above, whitish below with white tips to the outer tail feathers. Compared to other small hummingbirds, which often have a slender appearance, the Bee Hummingbird looks rounded and chunky.
Female bee hummingbirds are bluish green with a pale gray underside. The tips of their tailfeathers have white spots. Breeding males have a reddish to pink head, chin, and throat. The female lays only two eggs at a time.
As the smallest bird in the world, it is no larger than a big insect and, as its name suggests, is scarcely larger than a bee. Like all hummingbirds, it is a swift, strong flier. It also can hover over one spot like a helicopter. The wingbeat frequency of the bee hummingbird has not been measured, but in flight its wings beat so fast that they look like a blur to human eyes.
The brilliant, iridescent colors of the bee hummingbird's feathers make the bird seem like a tiny jewel. The iridescence is not always noticeable, but depends on the angle at which a person looks at the bird. The bird's slender, pointed bill is adapted for probing deep into flowers. The bee hummingbird feeds mainly on nectar, and an occasional insect or spider, by moving its tongue rapidly in and out of its mouth. In the process of feeding, the bird picks up pollen on its bill and head. When it flies from flower to flower, it transfers the pollen. In this way, it plays an important role in plant reproduction. In the space of one day the bee hummingbird may visit 1,500 flowers.
Using bits of cobwebs, bark, and lichen, the female bee hummingbird builds a cup-shaped nest that is only about 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter. Nests have been built on single clothespins. She lines the nest with soft plant fibers. In this nest she lays her eggs, which are no bigger than peas. She alone incubates the eggs and raises the young.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Mellisuga helenae". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Del Hoyo, J. Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J.(1999) Handbook of the Birds of the World Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds Lynx Edicions, Barcelona
- CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses by John B. Dunning Jr. (Editor). CRC Press (1992), ISBN 978-0-8493-4258-5.
- Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.