The Birds and the Bees


Verdin looking for crystallized sugar (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.


Orioles, like this Hooded, are nectar lovers too (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.


Bees can be the most annoying nuisance (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.


No bees, but a hitch-hiking fly on this Rufous (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.


Bee-free feeder with light coating of Avon Skin so Soft (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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