Mellisuga helenaebee hummingbird

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Geographic Range

Mellisuga helenae are residents of Cuba, an island located in the West Indies. Today, bee hummingbirds inhabit the entire island and Isla de la Juventud, which is the largest of the islands off Cuba's southern coast. There have also been several bee hummingbird sightings on the neighboring islands of Jamaica and Haiti. (Lack, 1971; Tyrrell, 1990)

Habitat

Cuba has a humid subtropical climate with no seasonal extremes, a favorable environment for bee hummingbirds. Bee hummingbirds prefer areas with the plant solandria grand flora, which provides their preferred source of nectar. Although bee hummingbirds may live at both high and low altitudes, they seem to prefer lowlands. They can be found in coastal and interior forests, in mountain valleys, swampy areas and gardens. (BirdLife International, 2003; Lack, 1973; Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Tyrrell, 1990)

Physical Description

Bee hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world. They also spend a higher percentage of their lives flying than any other species. They are comparable in size to large bees. Female M. helenae tend to be slightly larger than males. Males grow to be 5.51 cm long and weigh 1.95 g, on average, while females grow to be 6.12 cm long and weigh 2.6 g, on average. This small species is very compact and agile with an average wingspan of 3.25 cm. These birds have straight and rather short beaks when compared with other species of hummingbirds. Male M. helenae can be distinguished by their bright colors and the iridescent feathers on their throats. They have specially adapted flight muscles, which make up 22 to 34 percent of their total body weight. Mellisuga helenae (and other hummingbirds) are also equipped with a large keel and tapered wings, which aid in flying. As is common among other hummingbirds, their shoulder joints allow their wings to rotate 180 degrees and their small feet and legs can only be used for perching. (Lack, 1973; Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Santana, 1991; Terres, 1982; Thomson, 1964; Tyrrell, 1990; Weekes, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    2.28 g
    0.08 oz
  • Average length
    5.82 cm
    2.29 in
  • Average wingspan
    3.25 cm
    1.28 in

Development

When first hatched, new M. helenae are blind and nearly naked of plumage (feathers), but their growth is rapid. The young Bee Hummingbirds are fed by regurgitation for 20-40 days while the mother hovers over the nest. Hatchlings tend to leave the nest only after their wing feathers are fully-grown. This is about 22-24 days after hatching. The nestlings’ initial plumage closely resembles that of an adult Bee Hummingbird, with an exception to the dark colorations and the iridescent ornamentations. These characteristics are developed later in the life (decorative patterns) of the adult male (Terres 1982; Thomson 1964).

Reproduction

Male M. helenae form leks (groups of singing males that form during breeding season) to perform advertising songs to attract females. The songs may be brief warbles or a repetition of a few notes. Females visit several leks and select a mate based on his performance. A single male may mate with several females in one season. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Peters, 2000; Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990; Thomson, 1964; Weekes, 2000)

Breeding occurs at the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season when many trees and shrubs are flowering. Breeding corresponds with the flowering patterns of sloandria grand flora, the bird's preferred source of nectar. Mating in bee hummingbirds can occur on a perch or while hovering in the air.

Female bee hummingbirds typically lay 2 pea-sized eggs. The eggs are elliptical in shape and are white. Incubation lasts 14 to 23 days and the chicks fledge after 18 to 38 days. Females make their first attempt to breed when they are 1 year old. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Peters, 2000; Sibley and Ahlquist, 1990; Thomson, 1964; Weekes, 2000)

  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs at the end of the wet season and the beginning of the dry season.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 2
  • Range time to hatching
    14 to 23 days
  • Range fledging age
    18 to 38 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years

Female M. helenae are entirely responsible for the care of the altricial young. Females build a small cup shaped nest with relatively thick walls made of moss, bark and spider webs. Nests are often lined with down to help keep the eggs warm. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Peters, 2000; Thomson, 1964)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Bee hummingbirds are known to live up to 7 years in the wild, and 10 years in captivity. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Terres, 1982; Weekes, 2000)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    7 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    10 (high) years

Behavior

Bee hummingbirds are diurnal. Because of the climate they inhabit, they have no need to migrate long distances. They may make seasonal movements in response to the abundance and distribution of flowers. This species is capable of flying at speeds of 25 to 30 MPH.

Bee hummingbirds (like other hummingbirds) have unique flying skills. They are able to fly straight up, down, backwards and even upside down. They hover by moving their wings in a figure-eight pattern which allows them to remain stationary in the air.

Bee hummingbirds have adapted to the cool weather during the night by using torpor. During cold nights, their body temperature, which is normally 41 degrees C, falls to the air temperature around 30 degrees C. This allows them to conserve energy.

The tiny male birds establish feeding territories, where they aggressively chase other males, bumblebees and hawk moths that try to feed in their territory. Aerial flights and intimidating displays are used to defend the territories.

For all aspects of life other than breeding, bee hummingbirds tend to live a solitary existence. (Lack, 1973; Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Peters, 2000; Terres, 1982; Thomson, 1964; Weekes, 2000)

Home Range

We do not have information on home range for this species at this time.

Communication and Perception

Male and female M. helenae interact using simple songs that are high-pitched and unattractive to the human ear. They are capable of a variety of vocal sounds including squeaking and twittering. Many of their songs consist of a single repeated note, each note lasting less than a second. Analysis of these melodies has shown that different leks and individual males within a single singing assembly vary their songs. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Thomson, 1964)

Food Habits

As with all members of the family Trochilidae, M. helenae have evolved a unique tongue structure in order to more efficiently obtain nectar from flowers. Their tongue is long and protractile. The bill is also used to extract insects and spiders from within flowers. The birds hover in front of flowers while feeding. Because the hummingbird flowers have no perch, it is difficult for other birds and insects to exploit their nectar so bee hummingbirds have little competition for their food source. Bee hummingbirds consume their weight in nectar and insects each day. They prefer nectar with sucrose concentrations of 15 to 30 percent. Because of their fast metabolism, bee hummingbirds require a high nutrient intake and spend up to 15 percent of their time eating.

In addition to nectar, bee hummingbirds eat insects and spiders. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Peters, 2000; Terres, 1982; Thomson, 1964; Weekes, 2000)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • nectar

Predation

Anti-predator adaptations in M. helenae include their maneuverability and speed. Bee hummingbirds, along with other hummingbirds, are the only birds capable of flying backwards and making immediate stops while flying in the air. They also perform a nuptial dive, which is made up of several downward dashes with intermittent pauses and is used to scare predators from their territory.

Bee hummingbirds have reportedly been caught and eaten by hawks (family Accipitridae), falcons (family Falconidae), kestrels (genus Falco), orioles (genus Icterus), frogs (order Anura), fish (class Actinopterygii) and tropical spiders (order Araneae). (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Terres, 1982; Tyrrell, 1990; Weekes, 2000)

Ecosystem Roles

Bee hummingbirds are important for the pollination of various flowers in Cuba and Jamaica. Flowers such as solandria grand flora and the scarlet bush have evolved to make their nectar accessible only to this species. In these relationships, the birds and plants are codependent. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Weekes, 2000)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Bee hummingbirds, along with other species of hummingbird, are known for their grace and beauty. During the 19th century, stuffed hummingbirds were a status symbol worn on the hats of women. Farmers, scientists and tourists are often impressed by these tiny wonders of nature. Bee hummingbirds can be attracted to gardens with hummingbird flowers or hanging feeders of sugar water solution. Hummingbirds can also be important crop pollinators. (Terres, 1982)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse affects of bee hummingbirds on humans.

Conservation Status

The first human threat to hummingbirds most likely occurred during the 19th century when stuffed hummingbirds were a status symbol worn on the hats of women. Today, the greatest threat to the survival of the species is the destruction of forests and replacement of other natural vegetation with crops. This has an impact on the availability of suitable nesting sites and nest construction materials.

In order to maintain the biodiversity of the West Indies, the government of Cuba is determined to keep its annual deforestation rate at a low 0.1 percent. In 1959, the revolutionary government took charge and the Reforestation Plan was enacted. Planting efforts increased from 50.8 million trees planted each year between 1960 and 1969 to 136.3 million between the years 1980 and 1988.

Bee hummingbirds are listed as lower risk/near threatened by the IUCN and under Appendix II by CITES. (Perrins and Middleton, 1989; Santana, 1991; Terres, 1982; Weekes, 2000)

Other Comments

The wings of hummingbirds vibrate so rapidly that they create a humming sound. This is where the common name hummingbird originated.

When size is taken into account, the amount of energy required by a bee hummingbird each day is 10 times the amount spent by marathon runners.

This species of hummingbird is capable of visiting as many as 1,500 flowers in a single day. (Thomson, 1964; Weekes, 2000)

Contributors

Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Adrienne Glick (author), Western Maryland College, Randall L. Morrison (editor), Western Maryland College.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

island endemic

animals that live only on an island or set of islands.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nectarivore

an animal that mainly eats nectar from flowers

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

BirdLife International, 2003. "BirdLife's online World Bird Database: the site for bird conservation" (On-line). Accessed January 19, 2004 at http://www.birdlife.org.

Harmer, S., A. Shipley. 1959. Birds. New York: Hafner Publishing Co..

Lack, D. 1971. Ecological Isolation in Birds. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Lack, D. 1973. The numbers of species of hummingbirds in the West Indies. Evolution, 27: 326-337.

Perrins, C., C. Middleton. 1989. Encyclopedia of Birds. NY: Facts on File.

Peters, S. 2000. Bumblebee Hummingbirds of Cuba. NY: Welschner Books Inc.

Santana, E. 1991. Nature conservation and development in Cuba. Conservation Biology, 5(1): 13-16.

Sibley, C., J. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds. London: Yale University Press.

Terres, J. 1982. Hummingbird Family. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Thomson, A. 1964. Hummingbird. NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

Tyrrell, Q. 1990. Hummingbirds of the Caribbean. NY: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Weekes, W. 2000. "An Itty-Bitty Humdinger" (On-line). The World and I. Accessed January 19, 2004 at http://www.worldandi.com/specialreport/2000/july/Sa20985.htm.

Welty, J. 1975. The Life of Birds. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company.