If, like millions of other folks, you hang sugar water feeders in your yard to attract hummingbirds, you’ll know this article isn’t about sex education. I get lots of mail from hummingbird lovers who want to know how to keep non-hummer intruders away from their feeders. When you put sugar water in a feeder and hang it outside, you’ll certainly attract those little acrobatic marvels you’re after, but in the wild you should know there’s no such thing as table reservations. Candy stores draw kids of all kinds and ages, and easy-to-get sweet, energy-packed sugar water works the same way in your back yard.
Among other creatures, hummingbird feeders attract ants, bees, bats and even other birds. Although hummers aggressively fight off rival hummingbirds, including their own species, they’re mostly hesitant to take on other critters. They ignore ants, but ants contaminate feeders, and you can eliminate them by hanging ant guards between the feeder and its hook. Hummers also tolerate bigger birds, and since there aren’t any smaller birds, this includes a lot of intruders like woodpeckers, orioles, Verdins and House Finches. Even the school yard bully Rufous Hummingbird gives up his bar stool to a Gila Woodpecker that outweighs him 16 to one. Nectar-feeding bats are also sugar water feeders, although, like Dracula, they feed only at night. If your feeders are full when you go to bed and empty when you get up, you probably have bat visitors. Migrating nectar feeding bats can use a little sugar, too, but if you don’t want to refill all your feeders every morning, put a couple on a flat surface when the sun sets. Bats will ignore these, since they need to hang from the feeder to feed. And until you rehang them in the morning, your hummers can still feed from a table top.
Compared with birds and bats, bees can be a real nuisance. If bees on your feeders bother you, there are some ways to mitigate the problem. First, try to keep your feeders at least half full. Sugar water becomes more concentrated as it evaporates, and everyone including bees likes a sweeter hit. Rinse off the outside of feeders daily. Wind and heavier birds will splash sugar water onto the outside of a feeder, which is like a candy store tossing bonbons on the sidewalk. In summer, dilute your sugar water from 1 part sugar to 4 parts water to 1 part sugar to 5 of water. The less concentrated liquid won’t attract as many bees.
It also helps to hang multiple feeders; often bees will focus on the sweetest, leaving others for the hummers. Some folks even designate one feeder for the bees, hanging it out of sight and filling it with more concentrated sugar. Don’t bother with ‘bee guards’ or feeders with slits instead of holes. Bees don’t seem discouraged by either. Feeders with flexible membranes over the holes that open only when a hummingbird pushes the membrane aside with his bill will keep bees out, but given a choice, hummingbirds will also ignore these.
Another option is to put a light coating of Avon’s Skin-so-Soft around (not in) the feeding holes. Wet your finger with it instead of spraying it onto the feeder, and spread it lightly around the holes. Although bees are not completely discouraged, their numbers will drop, at least for a while. On the other hand, if you’re the one getting discouraged, look on the bright side. In the high country, it’s bears, not bees that come to the feeders.
(This article was published in the February, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)