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Bees at your Feeders?

Each fall migration, our readers are concerned about nectar-sipping bees and wasps competing with hummingbirds at feeders. While some hummers feed in harmony with these insects, many end up fighting hornets, honeybees and yellow jackets that try to take over the feeders. Bees and wasps are dangerous to such tiny birds as hummingbirds. The most common uninvited diners are bees, wasps and ants. Other insects such as moths and earwigs also may be attracted to the sweet nectar. A feeder with too may bugs becomes contaminated and less attractive to hummingbirds. An extreme number of insects can keep the hummers away from the feeders altogether. Knowing simple, safe tips to control these insects can ensure they do not bother hummingbird feeders and can still remain a valuable part of a backyard ecosystem — and your hummingbirds get the nectar.

  • Use caution! Never use cooking oil, menthol cough rubs, petroleum jelly or any deterrent that could get on the feathers or in the hummingbirds! This includes any part of the feeder where the feathers or bill could possibly contact the substance. Use commercial insect traps sparingly (and AWAY from the feeder) so you do not disrupt the insects' place in your backyard ecosystem. Never use pesticide chemicals or sprays anywhere near the feeders. Pesticides are poisons: Even a small amount can be devastating to small birds.
  • Keep feeders clean. Feeders that leak will attract bees and pests. Frequently clean the outside base and the feeder ports with soapy sponge and lots of rinse water. Then leaks and drips of nectar off hummingbird beaks won't tempt pests.
  • Choose feeders designed to discourage insects, such as feeders with ant moats or bee guards. Feeders with saucers position the nectar away from the feeding port where long-tongued hummingbirds can reach the nectar but insects cannot.
  • Move the feeder to "trick" insects: Once hummingbirds find a food source, they will visit it often. Insects are only likely to visit convenient food sources and probably won't search for relocated feeders. Moving the feeder by just a few feet can decrease insect visits without discouraging the hummingbirds.
  • Give insects their own feeders: Attract the insects by hanging the "detour" feeder in the full sunlight they prefer and use a sweeter sugar water solution. Or hang or set a very shallow bowl with old sugar water about 5 or 6 feet away from the feeders. This will keep the insects around to pollinate your flowers while giving them a food source besides the hummingbird feeder.
  • Avoid yellow: Red attracts hummingbirds while yellow attracts wasps and bees. Avoid feeders with yellow insect guards or flower accents and your feeder will be less attractive to insects. (You can repaint any yellow parts with red, non-toxic paint.)
  • Use Insect Traps: Commercial insect traps and feeder accessories are available to minimize insects' access to nectar feeders. While these can be effective deterrents, use them sparingly so you do not disrupt the insects' places in your backyard ecosystem.
  • Choose feeder locations carefully: Ants may climb a pole to reach a nectar feeder, so hang the feeder from a branch or gutter instead. Fishing line makes a good hanger; it's hard for ants to climb such a thin line to reach the feeder. Hanging feeders in a shady spot keeps nectar cooler and slows fermentation.
  • Keep the area clean: Bees, wasps and ants help your flowers and plants, but they will also be attracted if they find things like uncovered trash or soda cans. and so on. Avoid letting these unintended food sources be in your yard.

Bees at Hummingbird Feeder
Photo: John Doerper

Bee nears a hmmingbird by feeder
Photo: Alexis Hayes

Bees at hummingbird feeder port
Photo: Treesa Morris

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