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Carmine Bee-Eaters Hunt In Incredible Flocks Of Pink And Teal

One of my favorite non-fiction topics is a sub-genre often called "micro-histories." Rather than being books about major historical events on an epic, vast scale, these books focus in on something specific or mundane, tracing its history.

Recently, I got on a tangent of reading a few different books on the history of color theory and pigments, so when I stumbled across photos of the carmine bee-eater bird species, I recognized the beautiful color from my reading.

Carmine is an ancient red pigment, also known as cochineal, that the Aztecs used in art and textiles.

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When Europeans first came across the practice, the export of cochineal powder from South America became big business.

In recent decades, it's become more well-known after controversy surrounding its use as a food dye. Not because it's toxic or harmful to the environment — though it can cause allergic reactions for some people — but because it is literally dried and ground up bugs.

I'd argue that, allergies aside, humans have safely ingested it for decades and synthetic chemical dyes are worse, but bugs are gross, so people complained.

I do love the deep cool hue of a true carmine red, though.

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In tone, the red parts of a carmine bee-eater resemble the paler, but still rich shades you can get when tinting out a carmine watercolor paint.

Combined with the bright teal-green accents, these birds are stunning.

There are actually two variations of the carmine bee-eater, northern and southern.

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Aside from which part of Africa they stem from, the other major difference between the two species is their chins.

In the north, the bee-eaters' teal faces extend down below their beaks, but in the south, their chins are a bright pink.

It's obvious from their name that they enjoy bees as a major food source, but they also eat many other insect species.

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To protect themselves from venom, the birds will rub bees against a branch to knock the stinger off before eating.

Entire colonies of birds will take residence in a single dry riverbanks, filling the bank with hundreds of small burrows and creating incredible displays when the colony is on the move.

Though they aren't currently threatened, carmine bee-eaters' reliance on dry riverbanks for breeding means that entire colonies can be quickly affected by both climate change and human interference.

h/t: Time + Tide Africa, Oiseaux Birds

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