Bee-Eaters, one of Hvar's prime attractions

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.

You are here: Home Nature Watch Bee-Eaters, one of Hvar's prime attractions

Eco Environment News feeds

  • Sheep grazing has dominated the Howgill Fells for over a century, but with shifting agricultural subsidies and urgent calls to address biodiversity loss, change is coming

    For William Wordsworth the Howgill Fells was a romantic landscape, for rewilders they could be home to wolves, and for farmer John Pratt, these hills are home. “I was hoping this day would never come. I shan’t say it will break my heart, but it will,” says Pratt, who is selling his sheep and retiring after 55 years of uplands farming. “I’ve had a flock of sheep since I was 14, so I’m ready for a break,” he adds.

    The 69-year-old tenant farmer works seven days a week and takes six days of holiday a year. Since 1966 he has been renting Kilnmire Farm (with no heating in the house) on the edge of Ravenstonedale village in Cumbria with his wife, Hazel. He doesn’t drink alcohol (he’s Methodist) and doesn’t have a mobile phone because he “wouldn’t know how to use it”. He tried an olive for the first time in 2017. It’s a lifestyle none of his three children is willing to take on.

    Continue reading...

  • Gas discovery at centre of Turkey-Greece dispute will ‘make world even less safe’

    The giant gas reserves at the heart of a bitter political standoff between Greece and Turkey could lead to the same carbon emissions as the whole of France and Spain combined every year, according to a report that has called for the proposed gas pipeline project to be scrapped.

    The gas discovery has inflamed regional tensions in theeastern Mediterranean as Greece and Turkey vie for control of new fossil fuel reserves in disputed waters and, according to Global Witness, the climate cost will outweigh its value in Europe’s carbon neutral future.

    Continue reading...

  • Halting destruction of wild places could slow frequency of deadly outbreaks, say scientists

    The world is in an “era of pandemics” and unless the destruction of the natural world is halted they will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before, according to a report from some of the world’s leading scientists.

    The emergence of diseases such as Covid-19, bird flu and HIV from animals was entirely driven by the razing of wild places for farming and the trade in wild species, which brought people into contact with the dangerous microbes, the experts said.

    Continue reading...

  • Who better to ask how to handle the cold than people who work in the elements? Here, Guardian readers give their best advice – from the ideal breakfast to the perfect snood

    I was once working at a beer festival in -12C and high wind for 18 hours. It was so cold that beer brought outside would “steam” like a cup of tea. We kept warm by wearing about 10 layers (Scottish woolly jumpers and Norwegian merino thermals). Under-layers are much more important than jackets, but they must be breathable and not cotton. Old-fashioned all-in-one long johns with a vest suit (and a bum hatch) were the best thing I bought, as they keep your middle warm even if you move around a lot (regular vests come untucked). Wool is the best material, as it stays dry; damp is the real enemy. Your hands are the best indicator – they should stay warm without gloves and steam if cold water touches them. If your hands get cold, you need another layer. Kenn Flatt, markettrader

    Take spare gloves for the afternoon. There is nothing worse than putting on cold, soggy gloves after your lunch break – it makes you feel cold instantly. Simon Rogers, ranger,Cwm Idwal national nature reserve,Snowdonia

    Continue reading...

  • Guardian photographer David Levene visits National Trust houses at Chartwell and Emmetts Gardens to capture the spectacular colours of autumn

    Continue reading...

  • Climate crisis exacerbates extreme weather during natural events, say experts

    La Niña climate event is under way, heralding a colder and stormier winter than usual across the northern hemisphere, but 2020 remains likely to be one of the warmest years on record.

    The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has declared La Niña event – a cooling of surface ocean water along the Pacific coast of the South American tropics – to help governments and humanitarian agencies plan for extreme weather events around the world.

    Continue reading...

  • Removal of millions of tonnes of material from Goodwin Sands, the watery grave of hundreds of ships in the English Channel, would make a mockery of marine protection pledges, critics say

    Six miles off the coast of Deal, in Kent, lies Goodwin Sands, a 10-mile sandbank known as the “ship swallower”. Seals bask there at low tide, belying its reputation as one of the most treacherous spots in the Channel and a graveyard for centuries-old shipwrecks, as well as downed aircraft from the second world war.

    Now the site has become central to another battle, by conservationists and campaigners, to safeguard Britain’s seas from damaging activities and to hold the government to account on its “30 x 30” pledge to protect 30% of marine habitats by 2030.

    Continue reading...

  • Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: These mushrooms are outrageously exhibitionist, and bring to mind an old song

    “One for sorrow, two for joy” goes the old magpie rhyme, but these are not birds, these are mushrooms – Coprinopsis picacea, the magpie inkcap. There have been changes since the last time I walked this path between field and wood: a new wire fence erected, low-sweeping branches of an old oak lopped, debris and scrub cleared, pasture tidied and improved. In a patch where something has been disturbed under the fence is a cluster of amazing black and white fungi; fruiting bodies in various states of growth and decay. In this one patch, an egg pushes out of the ground; a dark bell-end with white feathery patches rises upwards on a stalk; at a foot tall, its cap rolls up and melts into a black inky gloop. “Three for a girl and four for a boy…”

    The magpie inkcap is unusual and, although it is found in Britain and Ireland, throughout Europe and in North America, it’s rare to find such a strong group. Scientifically described in 1785 as Coprinus (an eater of dung) picacea that looks like Pica pica, the magpie – it was renamed Coprinopsis at the beginning of this century because of DNA differences with other Coprinus species such as shaggy inkcap.

    Continue reading...

  • Restoring and connecting habitat across Britain could save a fifth of species by 2030, says report by Rewilding Britain

    Global heating is shifting Britain’s climatic zones by up to 5km each year, outpacing wildlife’s ability to adapt and survive, according to a new report by Rewilding Britain.

    If species cannot adapt to higher temperatures or relocate elsewhere, they will be threatened with extinction.

    Continue reading...

  • The Biobank is an ambitious scheme to house 800 corals in a purpose-built facility in Port Douglas

    A Noah’s ark-like plan to house hundreds of the world’s most at-risk coral species at a publicly accessible bank next to the Great Barrier Reef could prove an important part of long-term coral conservation, marine biologists say.

    The Living Coral Biobank, labelled a “coral ark” by its proponents, would serve as a technologically advanced facility where 800 different types of hard corals would be kept and bred, in the event live samples are needed to revive populations wiped out in nature in the future.

    Continue reading...

Eco Health News feeds

Eco Nature News feeds

Feed not found.