Bee-eaters? How are they a good thing when bees are so threatened?
Read on, to see what climate change has done. These birds, rarely seen in the UK, face an uncertain future – ‘will they, won’t they’ have chicks and raise them in the face of predators, egg thieves and insect decline?
The story so far…
These beautiful birds are usually to be found in mainland Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. So, when a flock of adults birds arrived in 2022 and six stayed to dig out two burrow nests at a disused quarry, the twitcher world was agog.
Since 2001 there had only been six sightings of bee-eaters in the UK. A surprise flock of nine was spotted in Great Yarmouth in 2021. The birds were recorded breeding in 1955 & 2015, with other failed nesting attempts.
Last year the bee-eaters, nicknamed ‘Rainbow Birds’ due to their colourful plumage, were very obliging, treating visitors and photographers to displays of courtship, and posing for photographs on the high wires waiting to catch the unfortunate bee, butterfly, dragonfly, or other insect that ventured past. Their burrowing activity, deep into the sandy cliff, proved as fascinating as it was infuriating. No-one knew how many eggs had been laid in the two nest burrows nor how many, if any, chicks might survive.
After a long wait, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) & North East Norfolk Bird Club (NENBC) monitoring the site day and night, finally in August the first of 5 chicks fledged. And shortly afterwards the group migrated south.
Season 2: The rainbow birds return
The arrival of three bee-eaters in late May 2023 was initially a closely guarded secret. The RSPB was quietly optimistic about a return as it prepared its watch. This is the first time these summer visiting birds have returned to a UK site in consecutive years.
Excitement grew when a further flock of five bee-eaters flew over the site. But these birds chose not to linger, and disappointingly continued southwards. Their current whereabouts seem unknown. Speculation is that, with an alarming 60% flying insect decline in the past 20 years, the site might not offer enough food this year to sustain a larger group. This will present a challenge – ‘will they, won’t they’ successfully raise offspring?
Bee-eaters raise their chicks communally. So breeding pairs are supported by other birds, which are probably related, in excavating burrows, feeding and incubating. Hence it will be a tough job for just three birds to raise multiple chicks this year. The rangers have spotted three predatory stoats and two magpies hanging around the burrow holes adding further danger.
It appears that the pair are preparing to use one of the 2022 burrows. Typically, these ‘nests’ are excavated by the birds in sandy pits with steep exposed banks and are between 50 and 275 cm in length. Then a clutch of eggs may be laid.
Very helpfully the RSPB provide telescopes trained on the burrows or on the high wires so everybody can have a prime view of these birds’ antics – gifting food to each other or delivering food to the “nest”.
A rich man’s pastime?
In 2022 there was a £5 fee for parking a car on the site, regardless of the number of occupants. Part of the fee went to the private landowner and the rest to the RSPB to help cover the 24×7 monitoring site costs. Cyclists and pedestrians entered for free!
This year the entry levy has risen to £5 per person irrespective of whether you are an RSPB member or not. Locals who relished frequent visits to the site (and were happy to make the odd donation) now feel that they can no longer afford to visit multiple times.
Volunteer stewards, patiently staffing the entry, become the recipients of the public’s wrath. Some quietly express the view that the RSPB has misjudged the situation and that a return to 2022 fees, together with a donation pot, might prove as financially beneficial as it is acceptable to the fans.
The justification from the RSPB is that the fee is to cover ‘site monitoring’. That said, the 2023 financial arrangement with the landowner is an unknown.
Will there be season 3 of the rainbow birds?
Maybe, maybe not. The fact that bee-eaters are more frequently migrating so far north is believed to be because of climate change.
“Like canaries down a coal mine, bee-eaters nesting in the UK are an early warning of what climate change has in store,” says Katie-jo Luxton, RSPB Director of Conservation.
Temperatures in Spain and Corsica have been reaching record highs. The Sahara desert is gradually expanding northwards with areas of southern Spain and Italy predicted to be desert regions before the century is out.
Last summer in southern Spain there were reports of baby swifts dying as they tried to escape being cooked alive in their nests by the extreme temperatures. Even in the UK, during the 2022 heatwave, birds and mammals suffered acute dehydration. Experts feared that the record-breaking temperatures might cause a further collapse in insect numbers, with bumblebees and butterflies among those most affected.
Bees overheat in very warm weather. They may survive a few days in their cooler nest with food reserves, but prolonged periods of heat will kill them. So, while bee-eaters eat bees, their appetite should have a negligible impact on a healthy hive. However, a two-degree warming may well prove to be the greater death knell for many British bumblebees.
The recent government reversal on the banning of nicotinoids, with its impact on bees and insects, coupled with climate change and ongoing insect decline, might explain why only three bee-eaters have taken up residence in Trimingham.
But while they are here, probably until mid to late August, the bee-eater drama is worth watching.
The car park and viewing area can be found in a large grass field off Gimingham Road at TG284384 or this What3Words location, just off the coast road. Entry costs £5 per person, cash only. More information about the site and access using public transport is available from the RSPB.