Dealing with Uninvited Guests at Your Hummingbird Feeders
By Jon Friedman
In the Sonoran Desert, we experience more uninvited usurpers of nectar than in any other region of the country. We have other birds, such as woodpeckers and flickers; insects, such as ants, bees and wasps; nectar-eating bats; raccoons; and bears at the higher elevations. All these critters can effectively be dealt with in a variety of ways.
Of course, having a high-quality, well designed, no-drip and insect-proof feeder to begin with will eliminate many of these uninvited guests before they ever could become a problem. The complete line of Aspects Hummzinger models are my favorite feeders, for these and several other reasons.
Many of our readers and customers already are familiar with my mantra "Cause No Harm" when it comes to our most fascinating, unique, and fragile birds - the hummingbirds. Understanding that rule #1 is to use the correct liquid solution and change it out every three days insures you are not unintentionally causing them harm. All other problems have easily attainable positive results.
Insects at the feeders are a common problem that's easily solved. Most of the pan-type feeders, and particularly the complete line of Aspects feeders, are designed to be bee-proof, wasp-proof, ant-proof and generally all bug-proof.
Aspects High View
This type of feeder (where the nectar is stored underneath the feeding ports) either accepts nectar guard tips (insect-proofing) or has food ports designed to allow the hummers to effectively use them but which are otherwise too small for the vast majority of flying insects to access.
This same type of feeder usually has built-in ant moats built into the center of the feeder that prevent ants and other crawling bugs from gaining access to the lid of the feeder or the nectar solution itself. Ant moats can be filled with water, finely ground cinnamon, or finely ground hot pepper. Ants and most other crawling bugs cannot swim in water and will drown if they attempt to cross it. These insects have very sensitive sensory pads on their feet and they will avoid touching either the cinnamon or the hot chili powder. Instead they will use formic acid from their bodies to scent mark access to the feeder and this serves as a warning to others not to attempt to cross it. Instead, they will turn around and abandon the effort.
While almost all the pan-type feeders have ant barriers built into their construction, none of the gravity-fed, vacuum-based feeders do. In that case, you can install one of our ant barriers above the feeder. We've been making ant barriers for our customers for over 20 years. They are made from recycled 35mm film canisters, solid copper wire, and a water-tight grommet. They are extremely effective, and at $2.99 each, are very inexpensive. We've made and sold tens of thousands of them.
If, on the other hand, you do not have a pan-type feeder, you have a vacuum-based or gravity-fed feeder. These feeders are easily distinguished from pan-type feeders as they always have the nectar stored in a bottle-like device that is located in the center of the feeder and above the ports. They may be commonly referred to as bottle-type feeders. These types of feeders dominate the general market and are most commonly offered for sale at the usual discount stores (Wal-Mart, Home Depot, dollar stores, hardware stores, nurseries, and supermarkets). They are universally inferior in the design and quality of materials used in their manufacture. Unlike the pan-type feeders that are superior in all respects and come with lifetime guarantees, gravity-fed bottle feeders aren't as well designed and never use the highest quality materials, such as UV-stable polycarbonate. Therefore they need to be replaced every so often and they are never insect-proof as they will leak, drip, or spill - thus attracting insects.
So, if you are still using a gravity-fed bottle-type feeder, here are some tips that will, only on a temporary basis, help with some of the problems. When the vacuum is disturbed or lost due to swinging in the wind, getting bumped, or having larger birds (woodpeckers, etc.) land on them - bring the feeder into the house and allow whatever nectar can drain back into the bottle over the sink. If the nectar solution is less than three days old and can be put back out, rinse the outside of the feeder and return it to its familiar location. Always carry these types of feeders upside down to prevent accidental loss of the vacuum. Loss of vacuum will allow the nectar well to fill completely up to the bottom of the food ports and any insects will then have full access. When the vacuum of air is in place, there will be about ½" of air space between the underside of the food ports and the surface of the nectar level, thereby preventing insects from gaining access.
Bees can be foiled by these types of feeders, again only on a temporary basis, by coating any area of the feeder that the bees would land on to gain access with plain, cheap, clear mineral oil. No other type of oil will work as well. Do not use any type of cooking, machine, or motor oil. Never use grease, pam, petroleum jelly, or any other type of deterrent. Use only mineral oil. Bees will not attempt to land on surfaces coated with mineral oil. This will need to be applied daily or frequently in order to maintain its ability to repel bees.
Bees, wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds, and nectar-eating bats all consume nectar as they pollinate flowers. Luckily, they specialize in different species of flowers; otherwise the competition would be fierce. Bees, wasps, and butterflies all prefer yellow hues. Flowers with yellow hues have a higher sucrose concentration in the nectar and lots of fragrance. Hummers tend toward the warmer hues in the ultra-violet spectrum - from orange to light red to darker red to the purples. Nectars in these warmer-hued flowers have less sucrose concentration and are a blend of several different plant sugars - what we refer to as a glucose-based solution.
Many, if not most, of the poorer quality feeders found in discount stores have yellow food ports, many of which claim they are bee guards. It is ridiculous to think that these feeders won't attract bees and wasps. For folks who have such feeders, you can use red nail polish to paint over the yellow food ports. This may help reduce the number of bees that might otherwise be attracted to those feeders in the future, but all the bees and wasps that have already visited that feeder will continue to do so as the exact location of that feeder is embedded in their little brains. So it's only a temporary solution and the bee/wasp problem could easily build up again.
An important note about bees should be mentioned. In the Sonoran Desert we no longer have populations of the familiar honey bees we all want to pollinate our gardens. One must assume nowadays that all the bees you see that look like honey bees are either partially or fully hybridized with African bees or, as they are more commonly known, "killer bees." This is a very real and serious problem as these bees can be extremely aggressive. A single agitated bee can communicate with the hive and in an instant hundreds or even thousands of angry swarming bees can attack wildlife, pets, and humans. Each year many animals and humans suffer the consequence of passing too close to a hive. Almost anything can set these bees off. People die each year in Southern Arizona from multiple bee stings. So we should do all we can to avoid attracting them to our hummingbird feeders. Simply avoiding the use of feeders that have yellow color incorporated into them or using higher quality bee-proof feeders will eliminate problems with bees.
There are other strategies that can effectively deal with bees and wasps. Removing them with the aid of a vacuum cleaner is quite effective. They will get sucked up before they know what's happened. However, you can't open and empty your vacuum cleaner for at least 24 hours or until you're sure they are no longer alive.
Wasps aren't as problematic as bees. They typically are seen at nectar feeders in smaller numbers than bees. After 5 to 10 wasps are removed, the feeder should be relatively clear of them. Wasps are quite territorial, so after only a few are removed, their territory is empty until new wasps move in. Vacuuming wasps is also a relatively safe and effective option. (Apologies to beekeepers and wasp lovers.)
Reducing the sweetness of your solution will also have a positive impact on controlling bees and wasps. The overall average sugar content of wild flower nectar is 21%, hence the 5 to 1 formula for nectar. Remember that Mother Nature created yellow flowers with a somewhat sweeter concentration of nectar mostly for the bees and butterflies. When bees find a source of suitably sweet nectar, they return to their hive and do a spinning dance, complete with wiggles and waggles, to communicate their discovery of a sweet nectar to their fellow bees. Once a larger group of bees find that feeder, it becomes less a hummingbird feeder and more a bee feeder.
You can reduce the sweetness level even further by making a 6-parts-water-to-1-part nectar solution and the bees will lose interest in the less sweet nectar. This almost always discourages the bees and retains the hummingbirds. 6-to-1 formulas aren't uncommon in nature and, especially in our hot, dry climate, help the hummers retain more moisture in their bodies to prevent dehydration. It's all good!
Photo by Richard at SearchNet Media
Two species of nectar-eating bats also use nectar feeders. They are present only a few months of the year and, because of their threatened and endangered conservation status, we encourage our customers and readers not to harm them in any way. We suggest, in fact, that they should be fed in the effort to help them maintain their diminishing numbers. They are extremely beneficial to the ecology of the Sonoran Desert environment so we should all make the little effort to allow them to feed on our feeders. You should suspect bats if your hummingbird and oriole feeders are empty first thing in the morning.
If you awaken to a sticky messy feeder, it's very likely that bats have drained it. They only make a sticky mess when the food ports are too small for their larger tongues. We have several feeders that are ideal for bats to use cleanly - without that sticky mess or a puddle of nectar on the ground underneath the feeder. Please ask us and we'll be very happy to show you the best feeders for bats to use. If, on the other hand, you believe all the myths and old wives tales that much of the public believes about bats and you don't want to feed them, we suggest that you simply take in your nectar feeders at night.
In certain locations, like higher mountain elevations and riparian areas, mammals such as bears and raccoons can be problematic. When food conditions and supply are poor, as they have been during our drought years, bears and/or raccoons may visit your nectar feeders. They may be present in the evening but can be seen even in broad daylight. With all due respect for the bear's strength, intelligence and unpredictability, we suggest that you never interact with any bear. Instead, if bears are present, hang feeders out of their reach. Out of reach for southwestern bears is about 10 feet or more.
Treat raccoons with the same respect you have for bears. Cornered raccoons can pose a threat to humans and our pet dogs. The raccoons will usually win any such encounter. Raccoon baffles can be installed along with your nectar feeders and will solve the problem without having to take down the feeders every night.
All the above-mentioned strategies are safe to birds and everything else in the food chain. Avoid using harsh chemicals, pesticides, sticky substances, and other such "home remedies." If you spray such substances to control ants and other such pests, they may be then eaten by some bird, lizard, frog, toad, or snake. Then that animal will suffer the consequences of that poison. And if
that animal is then predated upon by a larger bird or animal, it may also suffer from those same poisons. And so on down the food chain. There's always a non-toxic answer to solving pest problems. Feel free to ask for suggestions that go beyond what was covered in this article.
Remember, my mantra is "Cause No Harm."