Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Plundering Buzzards

On a tip-off from one of Bhutan’s foremost birders, Hishey Tshering, I recently undertook a birding trip to Sarpang in the South to sight and photograph one of my many life birds - a handsome looking raptor called Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). The bird is so named because its primary food source is honey that it plunders from live beehives hanging down from the branches of a particular type of tree that grows in sub-tropical areas such as Sarpang. I do not know the name of the tree nor the reason why the bees choose this particular tree. But for sure there is a reason why these bees choose this particular tree to build their hives on. Nothing in nature happens by accident  – everything has a reason and every occurrence or demise is perfectly within the scheme and natural order of things. It is as simple as death – without death it would be impossible to perpetuate life. For, death necessitates life.

I merely intended to photograph the raptors, if I could. However, I was not quite prepared for the scene that began to be played out right in front of my eyes. It was an orchestration of one of life’s most brutal ways in which to gather food.

As I scanned the treetops for any signs of the raptors, I suddenly noticed one Buzzard fly in from the right and land at a distance on the branch of the tree that bore the largest hive among over hundred hives of varying sizes and shapes that populated four full grown trees growing in the same area. After about five minutes, all of a sudden, the raptor made a lightening dive and clawed out a chunk of the hive thereby making an opening and exposing a section of the hive full of honey. While it flew away with a swarm of bees at its nether region, other Buzzards arrived to systematically dismantle the hive and rob it of its honey. There were a total of 6 Buzzards that attacked the same hive, again and again, until the hive was completely desiccated without a trace. My camera record shows that from the time the first attack was launched at 7.42AM to until the last of the hive was torn away at 9.12AM, it took exactly one hour and thirty six minutes to completely destroy the hive.

For a moment I was overcome by a sense of pity at the mindless act of plunder committed by the six raptors. This is no way to make a living. And yet, if this was an act of annihilation, how come some few trillion bees are still surviving to build new hives and feed and provided sustenance to succeeding generations of Buzzards and Drongos and Bee Eaters?

I get the feeling the there is greater harmony and balance in the natural world despite their seemingly brutal methods of survival. It is the human world that is at greater peril with our cultured and humane ways.

A Buzzard sneaks a guarded look at a hive from behind a tree branch - to determine the hive's potential for honey

A Buzzard lunges forward to launch the first attack on the hive

The severely torn and tattered hive after the third attack

A Buzzard attacks the hive and dislodges a talon full of honey bearing hive

The Buzzards do not have it easy - bees swarm them from head to tail

The bee hive is subjected to yet another attack - may be the tenth in a series

A severely depleted hive - 3/4th of the hive is gone

A Buzzard keeps guard over an abandoned hive

With the bees finally abandoning the doomed hive, a Buzzard is at last free to feed on the remains of the hive without the fear of being stung by the bees

All that remains of the hive at the end of the determined assault by the raptors


  1. Compelling, picture narration. So you were watching all through till the bees deserted their hive? How long does that take?

  2. Hi Anon,

    Yes I was watching all through out. During the process, I suffered 4 bee stings - two on the neck and one on the head. The fourth one on the back of my palm was more painful and the swelling lasted for 4 days. The bee had stung on the vein. Now it is OK.

    After each attack, the enraged bees are swarming all over the place looking for anything or any one to vent their anger on. I happened to be pretty close to the hives so that I can shoot the action - so I suffered few stings :)

    The entire action lasted for one hour thirty six minutes. It shouldn't really take that long .. but the Buzzards are weary of attacking the hive as often as they would like. I noticed that the bees goes after them and swarm them completely. So the Buzzards take their time.

  3. Hi YD
    Good morning.It was me there-Epoch.
    Bee stung you four times and you could still you stayed through with your lenses? Man you are invincible! And poor bees a house which took them some days and month are torn in an hour.
    I am seeing Buzzards for the first time. Thank you. In fact most of the birds and insects you post are new to me.

  4. Gosh, the buzzard sure is a mean looking bird ! I suppose the buzzards are built with natural armour against the sting of the bees otherwise they would be down and out with one swarm mena? Poor bees; their hard labour destroyed within no time.

  5. How did the birds survive so many stings (assuming they must have got plenty over them)? I enjoyed the story with my heart breaking slowly, but I was holding on to my curiosity to look at the birds in picture as I was reading because I haven't heard of the bird before. Buzzard and raptor are same kind? They are highly athletic.
    Good to know that you are ok after four stings!

  6. Hi Anon,

    Having gone through the experience and thought over it, I came to the realization that the Buzzards plundering the hives is as normal as we plucking fully ripe Cherries. Its time has come and if you do not eat them, they will fall to the ground and rot away to nothingness. On the other hand, imagine where the natural process does not provide for the ripe Cherries to be consumed or fall off and rot away. There will be no spring in the coming year and there will be no cherry blossoms and beautiful colors and bees buzzing around sucking at nectar and making hives and filling them with honey for others animals and birds to feed on and perpetuate life.

    As I said, if the ways of the Buzzards were an act of annihilation, there would be no bees left. The fact that the bees are still around and in plentiful numbers, it can only mean one thing: that the act of plunder is an important process of propagation.

  7. Hi PaSsu,

    Thanks for the comment. It is said that the Buzzards are immune to bee stings. I am not quite sure though. I have seen that when the bees swarm them as they are fleeing away after launching an attack on the hive, they do engage in a frantic activity of flapping and shaking indicating that they are bothered by the bees or their stings. Ofcourse the raptors are covered in a think layer of feathers ... and yet there must be some exposed parts of their body where the bees attack causing them discomfort and making them to take flight.

    Raptors are birds of prey. So, all birds that prey on others are collectively known as raptors. Some of the raptors found in Bhutan are:

    Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, Osprey, Kestrels, Owls etc.