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Bees at Hummer Feeders

Dear Bird Folks,

All summer long I have been having the best time watching hummingbirds at my feeder. Suddenly my feeder has become overrun with yellow jackets. The birds seem to be afraid and stay away. Is there anyway I can keep the yellow jackets away so the hummingbirds will return?

-Rob, Wooster, OH


Thanks Rob,

Thanks for writing in and providing us with all of the necessary info. One fine lady, “Marie,” asked the exact same question as you did, but neglected to include her location. Since my answers are exact and totally scientific, it’s important that I have an idea of what region the questions are coming from. For all I know Marie is from Atlanta and the yellow jackets that she was referring to are the fighting Yellow Jackets, Georgia Tech’s football team. I know it would be odd to have football players drinking out of a hummingbird feeder, but there are a lot of things in Georgia I can’t explain.

The yellow jacket is a creature with a very, very small fan club. Even the ever-gentle naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson, had words with them. Yellow jackets can be troublesome, aggressive, and even deadly, but they aren’t without merit. It may be argued that the dreaded yellow jacket is actually more beneficial to humans than the beloved honey bee. What? That’s right, yellow jackets aren’t as evil as you may think. Let me explain.

Here’s what I know about yellow jackets. First of all they aren’t bees, they are wasps, and not the kind of wasps you see driving around in BMWs. Honey bees have furry stubby bodies, while wasps are mostly smooth skinned with very thin waists. That alone is enough reason to hate them. Yellow jackets also aren’t into the honey scene. If you were to bust open a yellow jacket’s hive you won’t find a drop of honey, you would only find big trouble. So, what good are they if they don’t make honey and they are aggressive?

Because they don’t make honey they have to hunt for food. Yellow jackets capture massive amounts of insects to feed to the young in the colony. Many of the insects that they eat are what we would call “pests.” Pests that we attack with nasty poison, yellow jackets remove for free. The other interesting thing to know is that most yellow jackets are native to North America. Honey bees on the other hand are not native. They were introduced by the Europeans, along with the pigeon, the Norway Rat and the Yugo.

Yellow jackets have a fascinating life cycle. Read on if such things actually interest you. A yellow jacket’s nest may contain thousands of “bees.” But when winter rolls around they all die. Well, all but a few females. The mated females, aka, queens, survive the winter hiding in log piles or under vegetation. In the spring a queen climbs out of her hiding place, flies off to a cavity and builds a nest. In the nest she lays eggs, the eggs turn into more yellow jackets that gather food and help in the construction of a larger nest. What started out as one lone yellow jacket in May has become a force of thousands in late August. It is this massive late season population that causes problems at hummingbird feeders.

During May, June and July, most people have very little trouble with bees at their hummingbird feeder. However, August and September can be a different story. The wasp and bee population has exploded and they are out in force looking for food. What to do? One thing to do is try a new feeder. Many feeders have “bee guards” that will keep the bees from crawling into your feeder and dying.

Unfortunately, bee guards won’t keep the bees from swarming around your feeder trying to get at the sugar. If the swarming gets on your nerves take down your feeder and put out a bowl of sugar water. The plan is to get the bees to eat from the bowl of sugar water. If they do, than at night when the bees aren’t active, move the bowl a few feet away. Keep moving the bowl further and further away until the bowl and the bees are in your neighbor’s yard. Then it should be safe to once again put out your hummingbird feeder. Just stay out of your neighborÕs yard for a while.

Yellow jackets may be beneficial but they also need to be respected. My wife happens to be in the 1% of the population who are deathly allergic to their sting. So at my house I simply take the feeder down if the bees arrive. Hummingbirds are cute and all, but until they learn how to bake cheesecake brownies, I’m not taking any chances.