Bee-Eaters, one of Hvar's prime attractions

Published in Nature Watch

Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) are brightly coloured, exquisite birds.

Bee-Eater in flight. Bee-Eater in flight. Photo: John Ball

On Hvar they appear every summer, and are highly prized by bird-loving visitors to the island. They belong to the Meropidae family. European bee-eaters are mainly seen in southern Europe and northern Africa, while some of the other species are spread over distant parts of the world.

The beauty of the bee-eater. Photo: John Ball

However, European bee-eaters have been known to breed in more northern countries. In the United Kingdom, bee-eaters were considered a rarity, and sightings were recorded by the British Birds Rarities Committee. In 1977, numbers had dropped dramatically, as recorded on the annual list issued by the Committee: "There can be no doubt that this Mediterranean spirit is becoming scarcer. Up to 1974, records averaged over five a year, but there have been only three since".

From the UK Birds Rarities List, 1977

Surprisingly, by 1989 recorded bee-eater visits were considered regular enough to justify dropping them from the Committee's annual listing.

From the UK Birds Rarities List, 1989

On the other hand, it was and is rare to see bee-eaters nesting in the United Kingdom, although nesting sites have been reported at intervals from 1920. In 2017, seven bee-eaters were seen establishing nests in a quarry at East Leake in Nottinghamshire. Their presence drew hundreds of avid bird watchers (fondly known as 'twitchers' in the UK). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organised a safe viewing area a little way from the site, with a special parking area for the visitors' cars - and the nests were given round-the-clock security to prevent disturbance.

Bee-eaters are regular visitors to Hvar. Photo: John Ball

Hvar Island, by contrast, is a regular breeding ground for bee-eaters, who appear in great flocks, almost on cue in April or May, and set about creating their nests in sandy banks, laying their eggs, and going about their business of catching flying insects. They catch their prey, which they can spot at a distance of 60 metres, either in flight, or while perched. When they catch an insect with a sting, such as a bee or wasp, they stun the insect by hitting it against the perch, then remove the sting.

Bee-eater with catch. Photo: John Ball

Hvar's flocks of bee-eaters are a magnet for experienced birdwatchers from cooler climates. In 2017, Eco Hvar's resident bird reporter, Steve Jones, provided an unforgettable tour of the bird-watching sites around Jelsa for Will Rose and Eugenie Dunster. In 2018, Steve guided John Ball to the bee-eaters' prime nesting ground in Jelsa, which is carefully watched over by the owner of the land where it is sited. That landowner is a shining example of a natural conservationist. Many local people on Hvar are unaware of the beautiful birds which turn up annually on this beautiful island, even though they arrive and settle in large colonies, and announce their presence with a particular level of high-pitched chattering. They like to return to their previous nesting sites, which presumably serve many generations. The intricate tunnelling in sandy soil lasts for years if left undisturbed.

Bee-eaters chatter a lot, very loudly. Photo: John Ball

It was their loud twittering which first drew bee-eaters to my attention on Hvar some years ago.

Bee-eaters flying over their nesting ground, April 2012. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

It was difficult to make out their colouring when they were silhouetted against the sky, apart from the translucent orange of their wings as they swooped downwards. In those days, there were colonies on either side of the main road leading into Jelsa from Stari Grad, close to the 'Bagy' petrol station.

Bee-eaters' nests exposed, April 2015. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

And then... both nesting grounds were destroyed for the sake of human activities. The bee-eaters which returned to them that first year left to find alternative accommodation, looking forlorn.

Bee-eaters' former nesting ground devastated, April 2018. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

In 2018, the numbers of bee-eaters around the Jelsa region are noticeably down from the great flocks of past years. Have they gone away to find new nesting places? Or are their numbers less? In general, locals say that there are far fewer birds than in years gone by, an impression which we at Eco Hvar share. Different factors may be at work. Apart from the loss of familiar habitats, the extensive use of pesticides must certainly have an effect on both the birds and their food stock. Chemical herbicides are sprayed from January onwards round many fields and gardens, destroying the natural chain of organisms which depend on healthy soil; then come chemical insecticides, sprayed over olive trees in particular to destroy the fruit flies, any time from about April onwards; also in the mix are fungicides, and various chemicals against potential sickness, especially in the vines and olive trees. Although there are some organic farmers and gardeners on Hvar, they are heavily outnumbered by those using chemical pesticides, whether on a small individual scale or for large-scale commercial purposes. To add to the woes, local authorities regularly use pesticides, especially insecticides, over wide areas of their territory. (To read in more detail about the use of all kinds of pesticides on Hvar, please refer to the articles in our section titled 'Poisons Beware'.)

Bee-eater on watch. Photo: John Ball

Awareness of the need to preserve the natural amenities of the island is a long time coming. It is hard for people to recognize the damage being done by the persistent use of harmful chemicals in ever-increasing toxic cocktails, after years of false reassuring advertising by the agrochemical companies. Bee-eaters eat bees, true, and we need the bees. But they are part of a natural chain, which do not cause lasting harm. Chemical pesticides, on the other hand, are leaving increasing marks of devastation, taking their toll on human health as well as destroying the bees, bats and hosts of beneficial insects and organisms which we need to sustain our wellbeing. We need to reverse the trend.

Bee-eater in flight. Photo: John Ball

The beautiful bee-eaters are not on any endangered lists - yet. They are ambassadors for change. We should be preserving their habitats and creating the best conditions for them (and other birds) to thrive. Appreciating the bee-eaters, and all our feathered friends, is a step towards caring in the right way for our beloved island.

Bee-eater, up and away. Photo: John Ball

We at Eco Hvar are extremely indebted to John Ball for his uniquely exquisite photographs of the magnificent bee-eaters. The photographs were taken during John's stay at the Senses Resort in Vrboska with his family, during May 2018.

© Vivian Grisogono, 2018.

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