The Rainbow Bee Eater (Merops ornatus) is a very colourful member of the bee eating family: Meropidae and the only member of this family to be found in Australia.
The Rainbow Bee Eater’s range includes throughout mainland Australia, as well as eastern Indonesia, New Guinea and, rarely, the Solomon Islands.
The Rainbow Bee Eater inhibits forested areas in southern Australia and Tasmania.
These colourful birds migrate to northern Australia and New Guinea during the winter months returning to southern areas to breed.
Rainbow Bee Eater Characteristics
The Rainbow Bee Eater is a striking, brightly coloured bird that measures 19 – 24 centimetres (7.5 – 9.4 inches) in length from top the tail tip and has an average weight of 27 grams. It’s upper back and wings are turquoise green and it’s lower back and under tail coverts are blue.
The undersides of the wings and primary flight feathers are red with black tips and it’s elongated tail feathers are black to deep violet. The distinctive central tail feathers are tinged with blue and are longer in males than in females.
The rainbow bee eater has yellow colouring on its breast and stomach and a golden crown. The throat is orange-yellow, with a broad black band separating it from a green breast.
The rainbow bee eater has a black stripe extending through its red eyes from the base of the bill to the ears and is edged with a thin blue line. It has a black bill which is long, slender and curved and which is adapted for catching flying insects.
Rainbow Bee Eater Habitat
Rainbow Bee Eaters are most often found in open forests, woodlands and shrublands usually near water. They tend to avoid open desert areas. The bee eater will use disturbed sites such as quarries, cuttings and mines to build its nesting tunnels.
Rainbow Bee Eater Diet
Rainbow Bee Eaters, as the name suggests, mainly eat flying insects such as bees and wasps. They can spot a potential meal up to 150 feet away. Once the prey has been spotted, the bee eater swoops down from its high perch and snatches the insect in its long, slender bill. They will then fly back to their perch and bang the prey against the tree to subdue it.
Bee eaters are immune to bee and wasp stings but will still remove the insects stinger while closing their eyes to avoid being squirted with the venom from stinging gland.
Bee eaters can consume up to 700 bees in one day which makes them unpopular with bee keepers, however, this is generally balanced by their role in keeping pest insects such as locusts, hornets and wasps under control.
Rainbow Bee Eater Behaviour
Rainbow Bee Eaters are very sociable birds. Outside of the breeding season, they mainly roost in large groups in the dense undergrowth or in large trees. These small, colourful birds produce a soft ‘prrp prrp’ call when in flight.
Rainbow Bee Eater Reproduction
The Rainbow Bee Eaters breeding season occurs before or after the rainy season. These brilliantly coloured birds are monogamous which means they pair for life.
Both males and females select a suitable nesting site in a sandy bank. Nests are constructed by the female while the male brings her food such as insects. She will dig the burrow with her bill while balancing on her feet and wings and then balance on her bill while pushing loose soil backwards with her feet.
The female digs around 3 inches deep per day, constricting a narrow tunnel which will lead to a nesting chamber. The length of the tunnel can average 89.4 centimetres (nearly 3 feet) in length and may be shared with other bee eater birds or even birds of other species.
The female bee eater lays between 3 and 7 eggs which are white and glossy. The eggs are incubated for around 24 days by both parents until the chicks hatch. The young are fed by both parents and other birds in the group and will fledge after 28 – 30 days. Hatchlings can fall victim to predators, particularly Cane Toads, Wild Dogs and Foxes.
Rainbow Bee Eater Conservation Status
The Rainbow Bee Eater is classed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN. However, introduced predators such as wild dogs and foxes can dig down into the nests to prey up on nestlings.