Bee-Eaters, one of Hvar's prime attractions

Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) are brightly coloured, exquisite birds. On Hvar they appear every summer, and are highly prized by bird-loving visitors to the island.

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

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

  • Thousands of protesters occupied bridges across the Thames over extinction crisis in huge act of peaceful civil disobedience

    Eighty-five people have been arrested as thousands of demonstrators occupied five bridges in central London to voice their concern over the looming climate crisis.

    Protesters, including families and pensioners, began massing on five of London’s main bridges from 10am on Saturday. An hour later, all the crossings had been blocked in one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades. Some people locked themselves together, while others linked arms and sang songs.

    Continue reading...

  • Scientists in Brazil find first evidence of plastic pollution in Amazon basin freshwater fish

    Scientists have found the first evidence of plastic contamination in freshwater fish in the Amazon, highlighting the extent to which bags, bottles and other waste dumped in rivers is affecting the world’s wildlife.

    Tests on the stomach contents of fish in Brazil’s Xingu River, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon, revealed plastic particles in more than 80% of the species examined, including the omnivorous parrot pacu, herbivorous redhook silver dollar, and meat-eating red-bellied piranha.

    Continue reading...

  • Cuadrilla won’t say if it has halted Preston New Road exploration, at cost of £94,000 a day

    The shale gas firm Cuadrilla has refused to confirm whether it has halted fracking after triggering a series of minor earthquakes near Blackpool, raising questions over the operation’s future prospects.

    Dozens of small tremors have been registered near the company’s Preston New Road site, after it started pumping high volumes of water undergroundin October to explore for gas.

    Continue reading...

  • Starlings over Rome and the ‘smiling angel’ of the Yangtze are among this week’s pick of images from the natural world

    Continue reading...

  • Huge expansion of agri-food industry is harming environment, say investigators

    Green energy subsidies are fuelling the rise of poultry mega-farms across Northern Ireland, with owners accused of contaminating sensitive habitats with emissions from chicken faeces.

    An alliance of agri-food companies enlisted the support of Northern Ireland politicians to unlock an estimated £800m in subsidies for contractors. This has paved the way for industry expansion at the expense of the environment, according to an investigation by the not-for-profit journalism group SourceMaterial.

    Continue reading...

  • In the last 30 years, gulls have come among us as never before. But is their moment coming to an end as we tackle our waste problem?

    When was the last day you didn’t see a gull? Throughout Britain we ordinarily cross paths with these birds more often than with any other wild creature. They are hard to avoid. In the last 30 years – the lifespan of a large gull – they have come among us as never before. Though still popularly regarded as seagulls, many have moved inland, far from the seaside or saltwater. They have adapted to life in many places we have made, and they have thrived.

    Cities and their hinterlands where we jettison our rubbish now sustain far more gulls than the birds’ former more traditional marine habitats. Indeed, in a paradox that might define the Anthropocene era, surviving coastal birds are now regarded as threatened with local extinction, while the same gull species in urban areas are so prevalent they are thought of as pests.

    Continue reading...

  • Ranking of countries’ goals shows even EU on course for more than double safe level of warming

    China, Russia and Canada’s current climate policies would drive the world above a catastrophic 5C of warming by the end of the century, according to a study that ranks the climate goals of different countries.

    The US and Australia are only slightly behind with both pushing the global temperature rise dangerously over 4C above pre-industrial levels says the paper, while even the EU, which is usually seen as a climate leader, is on course to more than double the 1.5C that scientists say is a moderately safe level of heating.

    Continue reading...

  • ‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers

    Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.

    “I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

    “I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’”

    Continue reading...

  • Undersea forests, bleached and killed by rising ocean temperature, might disappear in a few decades, experts warn

    Children born today may be the last generation to see coral reefs in all their glory, according to a marine biologist who is coordinating efforts to monitor the decline of the world’s most colourful ecosystem.

    Global heating and ocean acidification have already severely bleached 16 to 33% of all warm-water reefs, but the remainder are vulnerable to even a fraction of a degree more warming, said David Obura, chair of the Coral Specialist Group in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

    Continue reading...

  • In the latest from our series on biodiversity, the Blue Hill chef says we’ve got sustainable agriculture wrong. It’s not a question of sacrifice, but deliciousness

    “How does it taste?” says Dan Barber, regarding me expectantly in the garden of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his restaurant in the Hudson Valley just north of New York. I am gnawing the crust of a large piece of bread that has been grown from Barber Wheat, a hybrid seed developed by Barber and his partners to be nutrient dense, high in yield and – a radical thought in seed breeding, apparently – full of flavour. (Whereas clapped out old seeds might yield 30 bushels an acre, Barber Wheat will stretch to 95). The bread is simultaneously light, and dense, and intricate in flavour in such a way that I can’t think of a single word to do it justice. Barber, who at 49 has the manic energy of someone for whom no plate of food will ever live up to the ideal in his head, looks at me gloomily. “That’s the whole problem with food writing,” he says.

    There are bigger problems in the food world. With the possible exception of “financial regulation”, there can be few more deadly phrases to the casual reader than “sustainable agriculture”, a heavy-weather issue most of us recognise as increasingly important but nonetheless killingly dull. This is where Barber, who set up his restaurant in 2004, is hugely persuasive, a charismatic leader who, if you talk to him for an hour while walking around the kitchen and bucolic surroundings of Stone Barns, will have you genuinely excited about crop rotation, and soil conditions, and the fact that the food industry is a dying behemoth reliant on low-yield, agronomically risky seeds that produce ever more tasteless and nutrition-less food.

    Continue reading...

Eco Health News feeds

Eco Nature News feeds