Aug 12, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2020

A Bee-resistant Hummingbird Feeder?

"How can I keep bees off my nectar feeder?" It's a question that WBB editor Dawn Hewitt hears a lot.

It's a question we get every summer here at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest: How can I keep the bees off of my nectar feeder?

I am a woman rich in hummingbird feeders. One of them is tiny, holding less than ½ cup of nectar, and has just one port, protected with a yellow bee guard. It's the one I hang each year on Tax Day as I wait for the first hummingbird. I often end up dumping the sugar-water unused, washing the feeder, and replacing the liquid several times before the object of my desire makes its annual debut. Bees aren't a problem in the earliest days of hummingbird season here in southeastern Ohio, but later in the summer this little feeder, even with its bee guard, seems to be a bee magnet.

Another nectar feeder I've owned for several years is a bit larger, and has yellow bee guards covering the red flowershaped ports. It gets bees. This feeder and the little one are designed so that nectar is a fraction of an inch from the bee guard. A bee could easily reach its tongue through the guard and into the tube where nectar is always replenished. I have never found yellow plastic bee guards to be effective at eliminating or even reducing the bee problem at my nectar feeders.

A third nectar feeder has a saucer-like design, with small, round holes on the flat top, and no place for bee guards. It gets bees. The bees can reach the surface of the nectar through the holes, and if the hummingbirds drip nectar onto the top of the dispenser, it sits there, luring even more bees. This one is way bigger than I need for the measly hummingbird population my yard has managed to attract, so I don't usually hang it until August, and even then, one cup of nectar every few days is plenty.

Left: The author's pseudo-scientific experiment. Right: Will this new nectar feeder prove to be bee-proof? Photos by Dawn Hewitt.

My friend Suzanne gave me a new hummingbird feeder last fall, too late to test its effectiveness at deterring bees, but it seems promising. It, too, has a saucer design, but the top is curved, promoting drainage of spills. The holes are small slits, elevated well above the surface of the nectar in the saucer below. A hummingbird tongue is certainly long enough to reach the sweet stuff, but no bee could have a tongue that long. This feeder is made by First Nature, and I'm not quite ready to endorse it, because as this issue goes to press, I've seen only a few bees at my hummingbird feeders. I need more data to conduct this pseudo-scientific experiment.

I fill each of my three larger feeders with a half-cup of sugar-water and hang them side by side on my front porch.

Yes, I want a hummingbird or three, but I'm also inviting bees to visit. I hypothesize that the feeder with the bee guards will be most attractive to bees. I expect my older saucer-shaped feeder to attract bees, too, especially after hummingbirds leave some sweet residue on its flat top. And I predict that the new, dome-lidded saucer will have fewest bees. I also hypothesize that the hummingbirds will be indifferent regarding feeder design—unless there are bees present to deter them.

So far, I've seen only two bees at these feeders: one at the feeder with bee guards, and one at the flat-lidded saucer. The new feeder with the domed lid on the saucer has proven bee-free. Of course, I need lots more data before I can draw any conclusions.

Much as I would love to state that yellow bee guards attract bees, I haven't found hard science to support that claim. Research on what attracts bees seems to have been conducted entirely on European bumblebees, which prefer yellow and purple flowers, and contrasting colors. Does that apply to American bees? I don't know. But I do know that easy access sugar-water, including spills and drips, attracts bees at my feeders. Any hummingbird feeder that prevents that is likely to be superior in deterring bees.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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