Insects, which include stinging, and flying ones such as bees and their larvae are a common staple in birds’ diets.
Many birds need protein sources, such as insects, for the breeding season.
Some birds such as Northern cardinals, wrens, blue jays, purple martins, and tanagers, actively hunt and prey on bees and their larvae. Other birds may not actively hunt but will consume bees if the opportunity arises near their perch, on the ground, or close by. Bees may be caught mid-air, or from hives, flowers, or the ground. Some birds may bite the head off or roll it on a surface to remove the stinger before eating it entirely.
Read on to learn more about bee-eating birds, and where they are typically found in North America.
20 North American Birds That Eat Bees
Many species of birds are omnivorous, eating plants, seeds, vertebrates, and invertebrates.
The consumption of insects, which include bees, is commonly found in the bird population. Some birds do not necessarily eat mature bees, but instead, consume them in the larval stage.
Bees enter the larval stage three days after hatching from eggs. Here they are small, white, legless, blind larvae that resemble maggots.
It takes skill to catch a fast-moving bee. Therefore, some birds are opportunistic bee-feeders, while others will specifically hunt them for regular consumption.
Predatory bee-eating birds are not a direct threat to the bee population. Whereas other threats such as bears, foxes, and human intervention have a far greater impact on hives and their overall population.
The following table lists bee-eating birds, where they are typically found in North America, and if they are year-round residents:
|Bird (Scientific Name)||Location In North America||Migratory?|
|Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)||Mexico, eastern United States, Canada, some non-native areas||No; resident|
|Thrushes (Turdidae)||Widespread in North America||Yes: long-distance|
|Purple Martins (Progne subis) other swallows (Hirundinidae)||Southern Canada, United States, along Pacific coast, Mexico||Yes: long-distance|
|Tanagers (Thraupidae):||Yes: long-distance|
|Orioles (Icterus)||Widespread in North America||Yes; long- and medium-distance|
|Kingbirds (Passeriformes)||Eastern and western parts of North America||Yes; long- and medium-distance|
|Swifts (Apodidae)||The United States and southeastern Canada, southern British Columbia, Mexico||Yes; long-distance|
|Mockingbirds (Mimus)||Widespread in North America||Varied; most are year-round residents, but some migrate to southern Mexico, the Bahamas, and Greater Antilles|
|Woodpeckers (Picidae)||Widespread in North America||Varied; short-distance/partial|
|Magpies (Corvidae)||Western North America (parts of Canada, United States, and Mexico)||No; resident|
|European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)||Widespread in North America||Varied; resident or short-distance if they live above 40 degrees latitude|
|Blackbirds (Turdus merula)||Widespread in North America||Varied, resident or short-distance|
|Chickadees (Poecile)||Coniferous areas of North America||No; resident|
|Warblers (Parulidae)||Widespread in North America||Yes; long-distance|
|Sparrows (Passer domesticus)||All of North America, except Alaska and upper-northern Canada||Year-round residents; mid-distance|
|Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)||Primarily eastern North America||Varied; partial migration from extreme cold|
|Wrens (Troglodytidae)||Widespread in North America||Varied; resident or short-distance|
|Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)||Widespread, but prefers Atlantic coast||Varied; resident along warmer Atlantic coast or long-distance to Central America|
|Nighthawks (Caprimulgidae)||Widespread in North America||Yes; long-distance|
|Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)||Typically east of Rocky Mountains, Mexico, and Canada||Yes; long- and medium-distance|
- This table only lists bee-eating birds found in North America. Therefore, one of the well-known bee consumers, the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) is not included here.
- Birds other than the ones listed here may eat bees and live in North American areas.
- These birds may be found in non-native areas of North America.
- Long-distance migration is typically to either Central or South America; resident, medium- and short-distance refer to warmer areas of North America such as the southern United States and Mexico.
1. Northern Cardinals
Northern cardinals are bright red songbirds that actively hunt bees.
Cardinals are tolerant of cold areas, and therefore do not migrate. They can be found living anywhere from forests to urban areas and anything in between, from Canada through North America and down in Central America (Guatemala).
They are largely found on the eastern side of North America, however, they are also living in non-native parts. For example, in 1929, the cardinal was introduced to Hawaii, and they now commonly live and flourish there.
Cardinals will access readily-available sources of food, and this includes bees. If a hive is nearby, cardinals will access it as a food source. This is especially true during the breeding season when their diets become more protein-based.
Cardinals also eat flies, beetles, butterflies, worms, slugs, grasshoppers, and more.
Birds classified as thrushes consume bees as part of their insect diet. They are opportunistic eaters, opting for bees when they are readily available.
There are over 170 species of thrushes found worldwide. North American thrushes migrate to South America.
Thrushes that eat bees include the following:
- Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina)
- Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)
- American robin (Turdus migratorius)
- Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)
- Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana)
- Mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides)
3. Purple Martins
Purple martins are iridescent dark purple birds with brown-black tinged wings and tails. They are a type of swallow found across North America during breeding seasons.
When the breeding season is over they move to South America. Purple martins cannot excavate their own cavities for nesting purposes, and therefore they rely on other sources.
In the east, they are often found in man-made cavities, often provided as birdhouses in people’s yards.
In the west, they use natural cavities or nesting left behind by woodpeckers. Purple martins will return to the same nesting site each year if they successfully bred and raised offspring.
Non-native species such as the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus) are competitive with purple martins over nesting sites, attacking the mother, their eggs, and the hatchlings.
Purple martins perform beautiful agile acrobatics in the air, meaning they can catch bees mid-air as they dive and hone in on prey.
They can fly several hundred feet up in the air, typically higher than other members of the swallow family.
They can eat other flying insects as well such as wasps, winged ants, flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies.
Other North American swallows eat bees as well, which include:
- Barn (Hirundo rustica)
- Cave (Petrochelidon fulva)
- Cliff (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
- Northern rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
- Tree (Tachycineta bicolor)
- Violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina)
4. Tanagers: Scarlet & Summer
These songbirds are part of the Cardinalidae family. Both species eat fruits and berries, as well as flying insects such as bees. They also consume hornets, paper wasps, ants, moths, sawflies, dragonflies, and cicadas.
Tanagers will eat bee larvae as well, tearing open a bee’s nest. They also hunt in a way referred to as “sallying”. This means that the bird detects food, “pounces” or flies to catch it, captures it in its beak, and returns to its perch.
When they catch adult bees, they bring them to a branch or the ground. They will rake, or roll and rub, the bee against the surface to remove its stinger before eating it.
Scarlet tanagers are brilliant red birds with black tails and wings, commonly found in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, traveling across the Gulf of Mexico to South America after breeding.
Mature male summer tanagers are completely red, whereas females and immature males present bright yellow-green plumage. Immature males may also have patches of red and yellow.
These birds are commonly found breeding in the central and southern United states, as well as northern Mexico.
Like the scarlet tanagers, they migrate to southern and central America.
Orioles are black and orange birds that consume insects, such as bees, caterpillars, aphids, beetles, flies, and more. They also eat insect pest species such as spiny or hairy caterpillars, as well as fruits and nectar.
Orioles are active and opportunistic feeders, searching through foliage and in mid-air.
There are more than 30 types of orioles, and they are found throughout all of North America. Orioles migrate as needed from winter areas to tropical areas such as the southern United States, Mexico, and South America.
There are eastern (Tyrannus tyrannus) and western (Tyrannus verticalis) kingbirds, found respectively in eastern and western parts of North America.
Like orioles, they migrate to warmer areas of the southern United States, Mexico, and South America.
To feed, they will hover over flowers and fly through swarms of insects. This is how they capture food sources, such as bees and wasps.
The International Ornithological Committee (IOC) has recognized 113 species of swifts, and a few of them are found in North America.
North American species including the following:
- Common (Apus apus)
- Chimney (Chaetura pelagica)
- White-throated (Aeronautes saxatalis)
- Vaux’s (Chaetura vauxi)
- Black (Cypseloides niger)
Swifts are aerial consumers of insects, which include bees, flies, flying ants, wasps, and moths.
Mockingbirds tend to stay put but may migrate short distances from northernmost areas in the winter.
They are omnivorous, eating insects, such as honeybees and wasps, amphibians, small mammals, eggs, and fruit.
Mockingbirds create beautiful songs and are capable of mimicking other bird calls. This means that they have excellent hearing, which can be put to good use in locating the buzzing sounds of bees and their beehive.
Woodpeckers actively seek out beehives as a source of food, consuming larvae as well. Their long tongues can catch larvae, grubs, bees, and wasps from the depths of tree bark and other sources.
Various species of woodpeckers are found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. These birds may stay put year-round or migrate short distances in the winter.
Magpies are scavengers and foragers, finding sources of food such as bees, caterpillars, earthworms, and flies. As foragers, they tend to eat flying insects if they are encountered on the ground or low branches.
They are typically found in western North America, extending from Canada, throughout the United States, and into Mexico.
11. European Starlings
European starlings are invasive birds, and not native to North America. They are now found across the United States, Mexico, and Canada, competing with native species as well as destroying crops.
Starlings consume honeybees, wasps, and other flying insects mid-air. They also eat beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, berries, and seeds.
They damage fruit crops, such as apples, cherries, grapes, peaches, and more as they slash and peck at them to eat.
Blackbirds enjoy a feast of honeybees and wasps. They fly near flowers and prey on nectar-consuming insects. They also eat grains, weed seeds, and fruits.
They are abundantly found in North America all over the United States, as well as in Mexico and Canada.
Blackbirds that are residents in southern and western parts of North America do not migrate at all, otherwise, they only migrate short distances in the winter.
Several chickadee species live in North America, such as the following:
- Carolina (Poecile carolinensis)
- Black-capped (Poecile atricapillus)
- Boreal (Poecile hudsonicus)
- Mountain (Poecile gambeli)
- Chestnut-backed (Poecile rufescens)
- Mexican (Poecile sclateri)
- Gray-headed (Poecile cinctus)
They live year-round in forests that are coniferous, earring wood, seeds, berries, nectar, wasps, spiders, caterpillars, and bees.
There are over 50 species of warblers in North America that migrate during the winter season.
These include the following:
- Magnolia (Setophaga magnolia)
- Northern parula (Setophaga americana)
- Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
- Chestnut-sided (Setophaga pensylvanica)
They are predatory birds, catching bees and wasps mid-air, biting their heads off with their beaks. They also like fruits and berries, even those found on poison ivy plants.
There are over 40 species of sparrows found throughout North America, except Alaska and upper-northern Canada.
They remain residents but will migrate down to lower North America to warmer areas in the winter.
Sparrows species include:
- Black-throated (Amphispiza bilineata)
- Botteri’s (Peucaea botterii)
- Cassin’s (Peucaea cassinii)
- Bailey’s (Xenospiza baileyi)
- Golden-crowned (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
They eat various insects, such as bees, wasps, and butterflies, by stalking them and waiting for them to land on something.
16. Blue Jays
Blue jays are fond of eating bees, wasps, and their larvae. They will dive into a swarm, grab one with their beak in mid-air, land on a branch, and devour it.
They will invade hives for their larvae. They will also chase bees on the ground or pick them off of flowers.
Blue jays are primarily native to eastern North America and found in the central and eastern United States, southeastern Canada, and northern Mexico.
However, blue jays are also found in smaller populations to the west.
Wrens are birds that rely on insects for survival. They will swoop in to catch bees and wasps, sullying to eat on back on a perch. They also eat spiders, caterpillars, moths, berries, and seeds.
Various species can be found all over North America. Some migrate to the southern United States and Mexico for the winter season.
Catbirds produce a variety of songs and have been known to sound like meowing cats. They consume bees and wasps, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and nectar.
Catbirds are opportunistic feeders, preying on bees close to their tree branches to keep themselves hidden from predators such as snakes, domestic cats, and foxes.
They migrate or reside to warm areas along the Atlantic coast as well as down into Central America.
Nighthawks are predatory birds that forage in the dark, but also will eat during the day if the opportunity arises. They catch buzzing insects in their powerful beaks, such as bees, swooping in to catch them.
They are widespread in North America, migrating long distances in the winter season.
20. Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds
The ruby-throated hummingbird has a vigorous appetite, eating honey bees as well as nectar. They can catch insects mid-air or pull them out of spider webs, consuming not only bees but mosquitoes, fruit flies, and gnats.
These hummingbirds can be found east of the Rocky Mountains and south to northern parts of Mexico, and throughout parts of Canada.
They migrate to lower North America and Central America during the winter.
Several types of birds, such as the Northern cardinals, blue jays, wrens, tanagers, and purple martins prey directly on bees and their larvae.
Other birds, such as catbirds, sparrows, and chickadees are opportunistic feeders on bees.
Birds may eat the bee whole, rake or roll them on surfaces to remove the stinger, or bite their heads off before consuming them. Birds may catch bees midair or pluck them out of hives or off flowers.
Birds do not threaten the bee population, but help to balance the ecosystem by eating a wide variety of insects.