The Southern Carmine Bee-eater is a regular summer visitor to South Africa, so they are not entirely unfamiliar to us. We have however not seen them in such numbers before as we have during our December 2021 visit to the Kruger National Park.
The beautiful Southern Carmine Bee-eater is a bird that lives in open woodland and savannah habitats, often found near open water, and that feeds exclusively on insects, most of which they catch in flight and usually much bigger than the fare enjoyed by most other bee-eaters. They’re often seen hunting near to large mammals and ground birds – often using them as a perch – catching the insects these bigger animals disturb into flying. They’re attracted to veld fires for similar reasons.
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters breed in huge colonies numbering up to a thousand pairs, where each monogamous pair excavates a nest-tunnel up to 3.5m deep into earthen banks, usually along rivers and gullies. The clutch of 1-6 eggs take 2 weeks to hatch and the chicks then leave the nest when they’re around 3 weeks old. When not breeding they are less gregarious and more dispersed. Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are the largest of the family occurring in Africa, measuring around 25cm in length (excluding the elongated tail feathers) with a weight of about 62g.
In South Africa, Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are found mainly in the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and marginally into Gauteng and North West, with most birds arriving locally by December and departing again by March. Interestingly the majority of birds arrive to breed in our northern neighbours Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Okavango region of Botswana from August to November, with the chicks already fledged by the time they then move further southwards to other parts of Botswana and South Africa’s northern provinces. At the onset of our autumn season they then return northwards to countries as far afield as the DRC and Tanzania. Only in a very narrow band crossing parts of Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are they resident throughout the year. The IUCN lists the Southern Carmine Bee-eater as being of least concern.