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Summer Tanagers Love To Eat Bees

Dear Bird Folks,

In last week’s column you wrote about dealing with bees at hummingbird feeders. That got me wondering if there are any birds that actually eat bees, or are bees just too dangerous for birds to deal with?

– Luke, Auburn, MA



I don’t know why people feel the need to pronounce your name like that, but it sure is fun. Red Sox fans do the same thing to Kevin Youuuuuukilis. I know why the Red Sox fans do it. They have to do something to make this year’s dull team interesting. And now that Youk is out for the season, the only thing fans have to do during the game is think about the ridiculous price they’ve paid for their tickets. They could say, “Druuuuuuuuu,” when JD Drew comes up to bat, but most fans simply nod off when he’s hitting. I know none of this has to do with your question, but I get nervous anytime someone asks me about “the birds and the bees.” To get through it, I usually change the subject. In my house we only discuss baseball, storks and the cabbage patch.

Like us, most birds have a healthy respect for bees. Even though birds have the ability to avoid bees, they don’t like to challenge them either. One sting can be fatal. But, believe it or not, bees are nutritious and good eating. Few things in nature aren’t on some creature’s diet. Even stinky skunks and pointy porcupines find themselves on the menu of owls and fishers, respectively. The same thing is true with bees. Eastern Kingbirds and Summer Tanagers will go out of their way to feed on bees. Yes, “out of their way.”

I’m not surprised that kingbirds eat bees; they are both fearless and crazy. I’ve seen one land on the back of a Red-tailed Hawk and peck it on the head. While kingbirds are fearless (and crazy), they aren’t stupid. When consuming bees they apparently have the ability to select only the drones. What are drones, you ask? Drones are honeybees that don’t have stingers. What? No stinger? How would you like to be a bee without a stinger? Talk about getting the short end of the evolutionary stick. It’s like being a quill-less porcupine or a skunk that smells like bacon.

Summer Tanagers are not nearly as selective. They will capture any bee, or wasp, stinger or no stinger. Tanagers hunt by sitting on a perch and waiting. When a bee is spotted it will sally out and snag it out of the air, fly back to its perch and beat it senseless. When the bee is dead the bird will then remove the dangerous stinger by swiping it back and forth on the branch. Once the stinger is out, down the hatch goes the bee.

As their name implies, Summer Tanagers are typically only with us during the warmer months. With the exception of a few individuals (like the maniac tanager that’s spent the last few winters in East Orleans, MA), most Summer Tanagers leave the U.S. in the fall to live in the sunny tropics. The sunny tropics are a good place for these birds because they look as if they have a constant sunburn. Male Summer Tanagers are bright red from head to tail. They have no black mask, white belly, yellow eye-ring or wing-bars. They are just red all over. The females are greenish-yellow, with no red on them at all. (Apparently, the females are smart enough to use sunscreen.) Both sexes have very long beaks, much longer than their cousin, the Scarlet Tanager. It is thought the longer beak is needed to keep the bee and its nasty stinger a safe distance from the bird’s face. Makes sense to me.

Don’t expect to see many Summer Tanagers in Auburn, Luke. They are rare birds in Massachusetts, normally seen only during migration. The majority of these birds breed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Actually, I don’t really know where the Mason-Dixon Line is, so maybe I’d better just say they breed south of Hershey, PA. I definitely know where Hershey is. Any town that features both chocolate and Kisses is always on my map.

On a different topic: I’ve been getting lots of calls about a new hummingbird special that’s been airing on PBS. I have not seen the special myself, but I’ve seen some of the mind-blowing clips on YouTube. It looks like a great show, but there’s a problem. In the course of the special, according to the callers, the filmmaker suggests that the best mixture for hummers is two parts water to one part sugar, or even stronger. People want to know why I suggest a weaker mixture of four parts water to one sugar. Okay, here’s the deal. Four-to-one is best for the birds; it is close to the nectar they get from flowers. It’s the formula recommended by the National Audubon Society, Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and the Tucson Desert Museum, where they have a hummingbird aviary. That’s why I recommend four-to-one. Come on! Do you think I make this stuff up? Well, sure, sometimes I do, but not this time. Stick with four-to-one, and donate the money you save on sugar to PBS. They’re about due to have a fundraiser. They haven’t had one in almost two days.