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Anna's hummingbird. Photo: Will Stuart

Birding

How to Keep Your Hummingbird Feeder Free from Pests

A few small steps can protect your nectar from bears and insects.

Nectar feeders are an excellent way to attract hungry hummingbirds to your yard. After all, these perky flitters eat constantly, and their dietary needs are pretty basic. With a bit of white sugar mixed with water, you can sustain your local Ruby-throateds and Anna’s, while brightening up your garden or patio with their vivid plumage. 

But hummingbirds aren’t the only animals that like it sweet: Bears, insects, and other birds often co-opt nectar feeders for their own gain. Some intruders, like chickadees and orioles, are a bonus for birders. But attracting bears to your neighborhood can put both you and the four-legged interlopers in danger, and excess insects can be a nuisance for any homeowner.

Here’s how to keep surprise guests away.

Bears

Ursids are mostly attracted to generic feeders stocked with pungent foods like suet or sunflower seeds. But when bears come across hummingbird feeders, the omnivories will knock them down and snack on the sugar water. 

Once a bear finds your free food, it will return time and time again, says Geoff LeBaron, coordinator of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. Mamas will pass the knowledge on to their cubs, leading generations to visit the well-stocked pantry in your yard.

Hungry bears won’t hurt birds, but coming in close proximity to humans is dangerous for both their families and yours. Attacks are rare, but if you surprise a bear—especially when cubs are around—it can become violent. 

If bears are frequenting your feeders, take the equipment down and move it inside. When the trespassers stop coming around, try putting the nectar out again . . . but bring them back in if the bears start coming back.

Be sure to clean up your yard, as stinky garbage can attract the lumbering animals. Hanging feeders out of reach can also deter bears, though finding a suitable spot is tricky since both black and grizzlies can climb trees.

Insects

Honey bees might swarm at a hummingbird feeder when flower availability is low. Photo: Stuart Rankin/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ants and bees pose the biggest problems with nectar feeders. Like bears, they don’t harm the hummingbirds—but ants can crawl into the sugar-water wells and clog them up. And bees, while useful pollinators, can obstruct your view of the birds and deliver painful stings. 

The easiest way to parry these pests is to keep your feeders tidy, says Tina Hall, the director of Tucson Audubon’s Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Arizona. If the structures are whipped around by the wind or not assembled securely, they can drip nectar, giving insects easy access to the goods.

To stop leakage, hang the devices in a less-than-breezy area and stow them away in rough conditions. Mop up spills with a sponge and hot water at least once a week, and check that the parts are tightened. While you’re at it, dump the old nectar and refill with a fresh, room-temperature mixture to keep the food pure and healthy. In warm weather, change the filler twice per week.

Some hummingbird feeders are equipped with moats to drown ants that climb down onto them. If your feeders don’t have this feature, you can buy attachable ant guards that trap the invaders in either water or another substance like petroleum jelly. 

Bee guards are less deadly, shielding the nectar reservoir from the insects. But if the feeder is covered in sugar water, barring bees from the drinking hole won’t do much good—so the guards aren’t a substitute for consistent cleaning. If you’re still having infestation issues, avoid feeders with yellow decor, as bees are attracted to the sunny color.

For a healthier environment, try to maintain an insecticide-free yard. They might seem like an easy fix, but pesticides can injure, kill, and reduce population numbers of birds, bees, and other animals

Other Birds

Hummingbirds probably won’t stop at your feeders when larger birds are there, but upping the avian diversity in your yard doesn’t hurt them, either. Depending on your location, you could see everything from Verdins to Ladder-backed Woodpeckers at your nectar wells. Pretty much anything with a sweet tooth that can fit its beak into the spigots is fair game.

There aren’t reliable methods to keep non-target species away from your sugar water, so the best course of action is to embrace them. After all, what’s the harm in seeing more birds?

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Having trouble identifying your hummingbirds? Download our free Audubon bird guide app to tell your Anna's from your Allen's. 

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