A bird and some bees — potential feeder rivals

Ruby-throated hummingbird nectaring on parrot lily (kept in a pot and seeds collected so it cannot become invasive in the yard) Photo by ©Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

For many gardeners and birders, a summer joy is watching the ruby-throated hummingbirds. We don’t often see them eating insects and arthropods, although they represent a good portion of the hummers’ diet. Some hummingbirds especially eat spiders, but they also dine on up to 2,000 mosquitoes, fruit flies, gnats, aphids, tiny beetles and small caterpillars each day!

Nectar — or sugar water — is nonetheless an essential part of the hummers’ nutrition. Those sweet calories provide them with energy needed for their rapid flight, which is enabled by 50-80 wingbeats per second! Every day they must consume double their own body weight in food.

I’ve seen hummers visit many kinds of flowers in my yard, including coneflowers, lantana and ironweed. They especially like tubular flowers, however, into which they can insert their long thin bills.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds nectaring on garden flowers and taking a break from feeding (bottom left) All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

To get a closer look at their marvelous agility — they fly forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down and straight up — having sugar water feeders close by is a good option. We can then also observe how cranky they can be. Often it is an adult male with a red throat who will try to maintain dominance over the feeder, chasing away other hummers who come by for a drink.

Even having multiple feeders may not solve the problem. I usually have three feeders up and occasionally two hummers will feed at the same time. But in my yard that doesn’t happen often.

Feeders with small round feeding holes are perfect. Our state’s leading hummingbird expert, Susan Campbell, told me that tray feeders with slits instead of holes should be avoided as a bird might damage its bill when inserting it in and drawing out. Now I only choose feeders with round holes.

Top left: a hummer dispute in 2022. Top right: hummers briefly sharing a feeder in 2023. Bottom left and right: round holes are better for hummers’ beaks than slits in feeders. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Other rivals for sweet water also come by. The hummers really like a small tube feeder with a yellow flower, but small bees are attracted to yellow and really love it, too! Very occasionally a hummer can be stung, so the birds are quite alert when the bees are around. But I’ve seen some thirsty hummers brave the bee mobs to catch a quick drink even when no bees are near the tray feeders.

Many websites devoted to beekeeping or hummingbirds publish tips on how to keep insect rivals away from hummingbird feeders. A couple popular pointers include:

  • Place feeders in the shade since bees are attracted to sunlight.
  • Use ant guards from which feeders are hung so that ants don’t get on the feeder.
  • Use feeders with white flowers instead of yellow ones. I tried a feeder with red flowers, but unexpectedly the hummers don’t really like that one. They also prefer hard rather than soft plastic flowers on feeders.
  • Place a bee-feeding station at some distance from the hummer feeders, e.g., a shallow dish with stones and rocks for bees to sit on and filled with sugar water for them. (I tried that; it only attracted ants.)

It’s important not to use pesticides and insecticides on feeders since we don’t want to kill pollinating bees. These substances are not good for the hummers either.

Top left and right: ruby-throated hummingbird keeping an eye on a bee. Bottom left: bees are very attracted to yellow color and sugar water. Bottom right: sometimes a hummer will “brave the bees” to get a drink. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Most people can enjoy watching hummers visit nectar feeders as these can be hung on balconies and overhangs — you don’t need a yard to have them visit. Just be sure to change the nectar solution every couple days in this very hot weather. If you see black specks on the feeder, clean it thoroughly with hot water and bleach or vinegar (which avoids soapy residue on the feeder). The black specks signal the presence of a black mold that can make a hummer’s tongue swell up so badly that the hummer can’t eat and dies.

I’ve been refreshing the sugar water daily. When I go out in the morning, both hummers and bees approach me, hoping for freshly filled feeding stations. A friend of mine sometimes puts a hose with a sprayer on a ladder and lets it run – she gets hummers taking showers!

Top left: scratching an itch. Top right: watching a rival up above. Bottom photos: ruby-throated hummingbirds taking a rest as they continue feeding in preparation for migration south.  All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Watching the bees and hummers with their aerial acrobatics can be a delight. I hope you, too, can spend some time watching them watching them the rest of this summer. And be prepared to see some molting!

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club, posts on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.

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