Fly larvae clean bee-eater’s nest

Waste-foraging co-inhabitants of bee-eater nests contribute to nest sanitation with a positive effect on nestling development. (Photo: Herbert Hoi/Vetmeduni Vienna)

bee-eater offspring  1

Bird nests are home not only to the bird parents and their offspring but also to other inhabitants, such as insect larvae. A team of researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna has now shown that fly larvae in nests of European bee-eaters help clean the nest by foraging on faeces and uneaten food. This “waste removal” has a positive effect on offspring development and benefits the nest ecosystem. The study was published in the Journal of Ornithology.

Birds share their nests with a rich community of other inhabitants like insects, that are attracted to the nest because of the stable climatic conditions as well as the rich supply of food. No study to date has examined the role of these insects in this community. As they use faeces and food remains as a source of food, their presence could have a positive effect on the development of nestlings among birds like the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), which completely lack any nest sanitation behaviour.

The richly coloured bee-eaters practice absolutely no nest sanitation. From egg-laying to fledging of the offspring, a considerable amount of food remains, faeces and skin particles accumulate on the chamber floor. "The birds do not remove these residues themselves, which could threaten the health of the offspring, the so-called nestlings,” explains study director Herbert Hoi from the Vetmeduni Vienna’s Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology. Using Fannia spp. fly larvae, he examined whether the waste-foraging co-inhabitants of bee-eater nests contribute to nest sanitation with a positive effect on nestling development.

Fly larvae contribute to nestling development by cleaning the nest

Fannia spp. fly larvae are present in great numbers, undetected by the birds, on the floor of the bee-eater’s nest chamber. For their experiment, Hoi and his team added additional larvae to the nesting cave of one group of European bee-eaters and reduced the number of larvae in another. Two further groups served as control groups for how nestlings develop without any change in larvae numbers.

The analysis of these parameters confirmed a positive effect from the presence of the “waste removers”. The presence of more fly larvae correlated to heavier and larger nestlings in comparison to the control groups. A lower number of larvae in the nest had a negative effect on nestling development. These were comparatively smaller and weighed less than all other nestlings.

Read the press release "Fly larvae clean bee-eater’s nest" for more information. 2

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