How do you keep ants off your hummingbird feeders?
That was a question a Bug Squad reader asked: "I was wondering if you had any tips on how to keep ants off and out of the hummingbird feeder? I've put Vaseline on the line it hangs from, and that helped for a long time. But now I have a different type of and, similar to a big red and who is not deterred, they just walk right over the Vaseline. I've even freshened it up. Any ideas?"
We asked "Ant Man" Brendon Boudinot, an authority on ants--and who just received his doctorate in entomology, studying with major professor Phil Ward of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Boudinot's response: "Teflon. In the ant research community, this is one of our favorite surface protectors against ants, as they cannot get a grip. Alternatively, Tanglefoot would work, but may also be dangerous for the birds if they come into contact with it. Teflon will need to be reapplied after there is evidence that its efficiency is being reduced, often due to exposure to water or extended humidity. The easiest thing to do will be to find the trail and give the surface a good wash, as the chemical trail will be removed. Ants are not able to remember the location of food sources without their trails. They will have to be lucky to rediscover the feeder."
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) offers information on ants in its Pest Notes section, "How to Manage Pests, Pests of Homes, Structures, People, and Pets."
"Ant management requires diligent efforts and the combined use of mechanical, cultural, sanitation, and often chemical control methods. It is unrealistic and impractical to attempt to totally eliminate ants from an outdoor area. Focus your management efforts on excluding ants from buildings or valuable plants and eliminating their food and water sources. Reducing outdoor sources of ants near buildings will reduce the likelihood of ants coming indoors."
"Remember that ants often play a beneficial role in the garden. Become aware of the seasonal cycle of ants in your area and be prepared for annual invasions by caulking and baiting before the influx. Different species of ants respond to management practices differently. For management information specific to a particular species, see the Key to Identifying Common Household Ants. See also the videos related to ant management in the home." (See more information on management of ants.)
On another note, we recently received a curious email about ants that began with: "I hope this mail finds you and your family well and healthy regarding the current pandemic situation. I am sending you this email regarding the OUTRAGEOUS ASSUMPTION THAT YOU IMPLY THAT ANTS MIGHT HAVE A REMOTE RESEMBLANCE TO FEELINGS."
Who me? I rarely write about ants or photograph them (they seem to avoid me and my camera). To my knowledge, I've never thought, written or implied that ants "have a remote resemblance to feelings."
"Ants may not be sentimental," Boudinot told us, "but they sure respond to noxious stimuli in ways which indicate that their little neural systems communicate something which would roughly correspond to the sensation of pain. Indeed, there may be some basic inherited molecular link between ant, human, and earthworm aversive feelings."
Meanwhile, I'm heading back out to the family pollinator garden to fill our empty hummingbird feeders. Neither a hummer nor ant in sight...and no remote resemblance to feelings, either....
The hummingbirds seemed apprehensive.
They'd fly to the feeder, stop in mid-air, and turn back.
What was keeping them from the feeder?
A closer look revealed what the casual observer wouldn't notice: a praying mantis.
Was the mantis a predator or the prey? Hummingbirds eat insects, and the larger mantids eat hummingbirds.
We waited to see what would happen next.
A hummer opted to take a drink. The praying mantis, sprawled out on the feeder in a position we've never seen before, didn't move.
It later moved to another spot on the feeder.
The next morning, no mantis. Gone.
Maybe it moved to another location. Or maybe another predator nailed it.
Meanwhile, check out a photo published in National Geographic that shows a praying mantis grasping a hummer. It's not for the squeamish.
And YouTube shows numerous videos of mantids attacking hummers. Watch this video of multiple hummers trying to dodge a praying mantis.
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It's no secret that honey bees like the sugar/water mixture in hummingbird feeders. If there's no bee guard on the feeder or if the feeder isn't bee-proofed, bees will sip the mixture. They also will lick the spills. A sudden gust that sways or upends the feeder is "bee happy time."
However, should we be attracting honey bees to our hummingbird feeders and/or providing them with sugar/water syrup? Is the syrup mixture good for the bees?
Curious minds want to know.
One rural East Bay Area area resident who feeds the hummers and caters to honey bees in her garden asked that very question. Since bee guards prevent the short-tongued bees from reaching the food (hummers, as we all know, have long tongues), she hung "plant saucers from a tree with sponge in one and a terrycloth towel in the other so the liquid doesn't cause them to drown, and the bees swarm all over it to eat the sugar water. I can go through two gallons of sugar water a day. Who knew bees could eat so much."
"Bees are in trouble elsewhere but not here," she shared. "I didn't intend to be a bee feeder. I don't have hives for them or collect their honey."
The bees come to eat and she enjoys watching them eat. Her intention is to help the bees. "Walking into a swarm of bees to fill their feeders is thrilling. I don't hurt them and they don't hurt me. And having them here is a simple way for me to educate people about the importance of bees and contrary to the common belief that we need to be afraid of them. People leave here with a different view of their gentleness and importance."
She makes a 3-to-1 ratio (three parts water, one part sugar) for the hummers and bees. However, her neighbors wonder if she is harming them "because they need the protein from pollen" and the bees "might find the sugar water addictive."
Will it harm them?
Newly retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology has answered a lot of humminbird feeder/bee questions during his 38-year career.
"Feeding honey bee colonies sugar syrup has been going on since man determined how to refine sugar from beets and canes," Mussen said. "However, in most cases, we feed these syrups to honey bee colonies only when they are short on nectar at times when nectar is critically important, especially for brood rearing in the spring and for making sure there is enough food in the hive to get the bees through winter."
"Nectars contain very small amounts of numerous plant-derived micronutrients that are essential to honey bees," he pointed out. "We have known that all along, but recently some research has documented that components of honey make the honey better for bees than sugar syrup. Honey-fed bees have more robust immune systems, they learn locations of food sources more rapidly, and they forage more quickly than sugar syrup-fed bees."
So, the question: Is she harming the honey bee colonies with the syrup feeders?
"I doubt it," Mussen said. "Some beekeepers feed hundreds of colonies from open buckets of sugar syrup in southern U.S. beekeeping operations, and their colonies do just fine. However, I counsel against such an approach, since the strongest and least needy colonies get most of the syrup, leaving little behind for the weaker, more needy colonies. Each should be fed individually with a hive feeder."
So bottom line, "If you wish to continue feeding the bees, they will keep taking the syrup. However, since it is not nectar, the bees will be 'robbing' the syrup from its source. The problem with that is that once robbing gets started, bees from one colony begin to try robbing from neighboring colonies. The bees fight at the entrances and many are killed. I am sure that we can say that many colonies are benefitting from your syrup in one respect--just like the hummers--but there are downsides to the practice."
In addition, beekeepers may find their honeycomb tinted red or polka-dotted. It's not honey; it's syrup.
Our yard is filled with such bee friendly plants as salvia, lavender, catmint and rock purslane.
Lately, however, the honey bees have taken a liking to the sugar-water mixture from our hummingbird feeder. Manufacturers' bee guards are meant to deter them but frankly, we rather like attracting both the hummers and the buzzers.
"The bees are hungry," said bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of the University of California, Davis and Washington State University.
We like watching the honey bees gather at the "red fountain" as the sun sets. They buzz excitedly around the feeder, sip what they think is a nectar of the gods, and head back to their hive. Soon more of their sisters arrive to partake.
So, will the honey bees make red honey from the sugar-water mixture in the hummingbird feeder? No. The honeycomb will be tinted red, but it's not honey, said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. It's syrup. Sugar syrup.