Coraciiformes TAG

Coraciiformes Taxon Advisory Group -

White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides)
SSP Manager: Not a TAG Recommended Species

General Information


White-fronted bee-eaters have a white forehead and forecrown with the grey feather bases frequently being observed due to feather wear. They also have white cheeks and chin offset by a black mask and a scarlet-colored throat. The hind-crown and hind-neck are both bronze in color. The wings and tail are green with a slightly blue tinge and the wings have a black trailing edge. The breast feathers are buff in color while the thighs and undertail are blue. This bee-eater does not possess tail streamers.

The iris is dark brown in both genders and the bill is black and slightly downcurved. They have three forward-facing toes that are partly fused (syndactyl toes).

Body Weight: Male 28-38 g (0.1-1.3 oz); female 31-35 g (1.1-1.2 oz)
Body Length: 21.5-23.5 cm (8.5-9.5 in)
Wing Length: Male 111-120 mm (4.4-4.7 in); female 110-121mm (4.3-4.8)


Not globally threatened, in fact its distribution range has increased recently. Some colonies are susceptible to disturbance by humans, sometimes abandoning it completely.


Southern tropical Africa. Found in the countries of: Angola; Botswana; Burundi; Congo; Congo, The Democratic Republic of the; Gabon; Kenya; Malawi; Mozambique; Namibia; Rwanda; South Africa; Swaziland; Tanzania, United Republic of; Zambia; Zimbabwe Present in several African national parks: Lake Nakuru (Kenya), Victoria Falls and Zambezi (Zimbabwe), Kruger (South Africa), Virunga (Democratic Republic of Congo).


The habitat commonly consists of wooded savannas, sandy cliffs, African grassland and open scrub, especially in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya between 1400 and 2000 m, they avoid heavily forested areas.



White-fronted bee-eaters nest in colonies averaging 200 individuals, digging roosting and nesting holes in cliffs or banks of earth. They are monogamous and strongly gregarious colonial nesters. The white-fronted bee-eater has one of the most complicated societies of all birds, with each colony comprising a number of groups, known as clans. Each clan contains 3-6 "families", each containing one breeding pair and 1-5 helpers. Although a number of clans live in one colony, each has its own feeding territory, which they it defends vigorously from other clans. 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.

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. 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.

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 preferential help the breeding pair to who they are most closely related, suggesting that this behaviour may serve to increase the helper's inclusive fitness.

The nesting system consists of a tunnel 1.0-1.2 m long, ending in an oval nest chamber. The burrow is usually dug into riverbanks or gullies by moving sand with its bill or, if it finds a more serious obstacle, using a bicycling action with its feet. Egg-laying season for white-fronted bee-eaters is normally in early summer, from August to November. The bee-eaters lay 2-5 eggs, with parasitism within the species also recorded, where an unpaired female lays its egg in a breeding pair's nest. It waits for the nest owner's absence, removing any existing eggs before laying its own. These chicks are raised normally, as there is no way that the adoptive parents can know whether they are their own. Incubation lasts roughly 21 days, with both parents and helpers participating. The chicks stay in the nest for 20-28 days, leaving before they have fully learnt to hunt. They are taught by their parents how to hunt insects, after which some juveniles disperse while others remain to help with the rearing of the next generation.

Theo Pagel of Zoological Garden Cologne published a paper in Aviculture Magazine, Volume 103 Number 1 entitled Experiences Keeping and Breeding the White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) in the Zoological Garden Cologne. A bee-eater husbandry paper was written by Martin Vince of Riverbanks Zoo titled Bee-eaters: Their Care and Breeding.

Hand-rearing information from San Diego Zoo can be found here.


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. Once prey is located, it descends to grab the insect before returning to its perch to swallow it (see images above). It also pursues prey aerially, sometimes ascending to hundreds of metres above the ground. The percentage indicates the proportion of that food item in the diet, e.g. 4% of its diet is Hemiptera). In one study, the following food items have been recorded in its diet:

  • Insects
    • Hymenoptera(wasps, bees and ants, see fig. 2 and 4) - 91%
      • Apis mellifera (Honey bee) - 78% of Hymenoptera in diet, or 71% of its total diet.
    • Hemiptera (bugs) - 4%
    • Coleoptera (beetles) - 2%
    • Diptera (flies) - 0.7%
    • Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, see fig. 1) - 0.7%
    • Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) - 0.3%
    • Orthoptera (crickets and grasshoppers) - 0.1%
    • unidentified insects - 0.2%

White-fronted Bee-eater Gallery

White-fronted Bee-eater Bibliography

San Diego Zoo Global: White-fronted Bee-eater Fact Sheet