Have you been struggling to keep ants, wasps and bees away from hummingbird feeders?
If you’ve searched the internet for advice, you’ve probably found a dozen or more articles that all say pretty much the same things - none of which really work.
I dug into the science of how to keep ants, wasps and bees away from hummingbird feeders and discovered that most of that ‘expert’ advice is pure myth!
But I did find one very easy fix that really does work.
Mythbusting common tips
Myth No. 1: Use a red feeder
The idea here is that bees and wasps can't see red, so they won't notice a red feeder.
False! It’s true that bees and wasps (and ants) don’t see red - their color vision is sensitive only to ultraviolet, blue and green1The spectral input systems of hymenopteran insects and their receptor-based colour vision.,2Does Bee Color Vision Predate the Evolution of Flower Color?, 3 Colour vision in ants (Formicidae, Hymenoptera).
BUT they locate food sources based on their acute sense of smell; on remembered landmarks, and by noticing other bees/wasps gathered on a food source.
Ants follow scent trails left by other ants who got there first.
Fun Fact: Bees, wasps and ants sense smells through their antennae.
Myth No. 2: Yellow feeders/parts should be avoided
Bees and wasps are supposedly attracted to yellow, because pollen is yellow.
So if you stay away from yellow, you'll supposedly be able to keep wasps and bees away from hummingbird feeders.
Close-up photo of a wasp head.
After reading several scientific studies of insect colour vision 4Social wasp trapping in north west Italy: comparison of different bait-traps and first detection of Vespa velutina, 5The spectral input systems of hymenopteran insects and their receptor-based colour vision,6Does Bee Color Vision Predate the Evolution of Flower Color? , 7 Colour vision in ants (Formicidae, Hymenoptera) I have concluded that bees, wasps and ants likely don’t even see yellow very well or at all.
The science - skip this part if you want.
The chart below indicates the wavelengths of colored light that certain tested insects can see. I have added color names and highlighted the wavelength areas of both yellow and red light in the appropriate color.
As you can see, none of the listed insects have markers in the yellow region, and only a few have markers indicating they can see red.
To sum up, it’s very doubtful that yellow makes any difference to bees and wasps (or ants).
And if that’s not enough for you, consider this: color vision in the common ancestor of bees and wasps actually evolved before flowers did, so pollen color can’t possibly be relevant for them.
Myth No. 3: Fake wasp nests will keep wasps away
Nope! Even real wasp nests won’t deter new wasps.
Entomologist Nancy Miorelli says that even though "not officially studied in the scientific literature yet, wasps have been shown to make nests in close proximity and even build nests on top of old ones.”
In fact, queens of one species have even been found to overwinter in the old nests of other wasp species.
Save your money.
A decoy wasp nest intended to deter wasps - but it doesn't.
Myth No. 4: Hang the hummingbird feeder with fishing line since ants can’t walk on it.
Myth No. 5: Use hummingbird nectar with less sugar in it
Specifically, the internet tells you to make your nectar with 5 parts water to 1 part sugar instead of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. This formula would make the nectar less sweet and also less viscous (syrupy).
The idea here is to reduce the sugar concentration from 25 percent to 20 percent in hopes it will keep bees away from hummingbird feeders.
Unfortunately, at least two studies 8 Honeybees prefer warmer nectar and less viscous nectar, regardless of sugar concentration, 9 Drinking made easier: honey bee tongues dip faster into warmer and/or less viscous artificial nectar have found that bees actually prefer less viscous nectar, regardless of the sugar concentration.
One of the studies had no trouble attracting bees to a nectar 10% sugar, so this “20 percent” solution is no solution at all!
Myth No. 6: Use mint to repel bees
According to Master Beekeeper Rusty Burlew, mint is actually an excellent bee attractor! Burlew conducted an experiment to see which essential oils could be added to nectar to attract bees.
She tried essential oils of anise, peppermint, tea tree and wintergreen. Anise was the hands down winner, followed by peppermint. After those were gone, the bees also drank the nectar with tea tree or wintergreen oils.
More advice that’s probably wishful thinking
I couldn’t find a lot of science discussing these tips but what I did find, along with common sense, suggests that these frequently-offered tips are likely not very effective.
Use a saucer-shaped feeder instead of a bottle feeder
Saucer shaped feeders are shallow bowls that hold nectar. The feeding ports are located above the nectar on the plate-like cover of the nectar bowl.
The idea is that hummingbirds’ long tongues can easily reach the nectar, while bees can’t.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from trying!
Saucer-type hummingbird feeder
Some people who’ve tried this type of feeder even said it was a graveyard for bees, which got into it and drowned in large numbers.
You can buy some of these hummingbird feeders with bee guards (membranes that keep bees out) inside the feeding ports, or you can buy add-on bee guards for certain hummingbird feeders.
But bee guards won’t keep bees off the outside of the feeder.
Use an ant moat to keep ants off hummingbird feeders
Ant moats do mostly work to keep ants out of your hummingbird feeder, but they have their problems too.
- Very determined ants will team up and make a bridge of their own bodies to cross the moat.
- Ant moats don’t hold much water so you have to refill them frequently.
- An ant moat full of dead ants is uber-gross and doesn’t clean up easily. I’m not squeamish, but this is one thing I’d prefer not to deal with.
Hang your hummingbird feeder in shade
This might keep the nectar fresh longer but won’t discourage bees except in very cold weather10 Honeybees prefer warmer nectar and less viscous nectar, regardless of sugar concentration.I have a covered, shady deck that I wish wasps and bees would avoid but they visit freely even when there’s no food for them.
Clean the feeder well, tighten all leaky parts and move it a few feet away
The idea here is that bees etc. won’t be attracted by leaking or spilled nectar and will be stumped by not finding the feeder where it used to be.
Unfortunately, at least one study 11Honeybees use a Lévy flight search strategy and odour-mediated anemotaxis to relocate food sources showed that when bees don’t find a feeder where they expect it, they will perform “long, looping flights” to search for it.
Also, as noted, bees find nectar by scent. Even a very clean hummingbird feeder has to have feeding ports, so bees (and ants) will still be able to smell the nectar. If it leaks at all, they will feed from the leaky areas even if you have a hummingbird feeder with bee guards.
For what it’s worth, I read a few comments that said this trick does work, but only for awhile.
Moving the source is unlikely to keep bees away from hummingbird feeders for very long.
Feed bees and wasps separately with 2:1 or 1:1 sugar water
Several bloggers said this trick does work, but you end up with lots of bees. One blogger said the bees emptied a 1-liter feeder about four times a day!
So if you want more bees around, be sure to try this trick.
Bug-busting tactics that are dangerous for birds
1. NEVER use insecticides
No matter how desperate you are, you should never use insecticides to keep ants, wasps or bees away from hummingbird feeders. Here’s why:
- Insecticides can be directly toxic to birds and may be partly responsible for the drastic worldwide loss of some bird populations.
- Some birds are totally reliant on insects for food, and all baby birds eat only insects during their early lives. Using insecticides makes it even harder for birds to survive and reproduce.
- Insecticides usually aren’t target-specific, so they may wipe out bugs you want to keep, such as butterflies.
- Even insecticides that are “less toxic” to birds are especially toxic for fish, amphibians and even pets.
Bees, wasps and ants are actually important: your garden definitely needs them and so do your birds.
Here are just a few of the ways it’s good to have these insects around:
Bees are extremely important pollinators for both human crops and the foods that wild birds eat. But their numbers have been greatly reduced by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Scientists have made some progress on reducing CCD but it’s still a big problem and pesticides are believed to be a contributing factor.
Wasps are also important pollinators and they’re big predators of garden pests like aphids, flies and caterpillars.
Believe it or not, ants are very helpful too: they move almost as much soil as earthworms, helping air and water get into the roots to keep your plants healthy.
They clean up dead insects and plant material and are an important food source for birds and other creatures. Some ants even eat termites!
2. NEVER put greasy or sticky stuff on bird feeders or poles
This goes for oil, grease, glue, spider webs, cooking spray, sticky gels like Tanglefoot and (surprise!) oriole jelly.
Any small bird that brushes up against any of these will have problems flying and also staying warm.
It could even die.
Essential oils THAT WORK to keep bees away from hummingbird feeders
Did I mention that bees, wasps and ants have an extremely keen sense of smell?
The simple secret to keeping them off your hummingbird feeders is to repel them with scents they don’t like!
Essential oils are your secret weapon – the bugs will smell them but the birds won’t be bothered at all.
Despite the fact that they are all in the same insect family – Hymenoptera – lots of studies show that bees, wasps and ants are each repelled by particular scents 12Mutualistic Interactions between Flowering Plants and Animals, Palatty Allesh Sinu, KR Shivanna Editors, 2016, Manipal Universal Press, 13 Experiments on Bee Repellents, I. Harpaz & Y. Lensky, 1959, Bee World, Volume 40, issue 6, 1959, 14Investigation of the bee-repellent properties of cotton fabrics treated with microencapsulated essential oils , 15 Journal of Pest Management Science, 16Natural Repellents as a Method of Preventing Ant Damage to Microirrigation Systems, 17Topical Toxicity of Nine Essential Oils to Camponotus pennsylvanicus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) .
Luckily, both clove oil and citronella oil are good repellents for all three bothersome bugs! You can use either one alone or make a double whammy by combining both oils.
Tip: DON’T use cinnamon oil – it attracts wasps by the carload!
How to use essential oils to keep bees away from hummingbird feeders
You’ll need either clove oil or citronella oil, or both. Use them singly or mix them together.
Two ways to apply them to your hummingbird feeder:
Use a finger to apply a light film of essential oil directly around (but not in) the feeding ports and on the top of your hummingbird feeder.
You should also apply it anywhere the feeder could leak, such as where the nectar reservoir attaches to the feeding section.
Be careful not to apply so much oil that it could transfer to the birds’ feathers!Direct application of pure essential oil should last for about a week.
You can also make an essential oil spray:
Take a small - 2-4 ounce - spray bottle and fill about one tenth of it with either clove or citronella oil, or a mix of both.
Add a little liquid soap (a teaspoon or less), then fill the bottle with tap water. The soap helps the oil and water stay mixed.
Shake well and spray the mixture on the top and sides of the feeder, as well as any areas where it could leak.
Spray the feeding ports too but cover the openings with a finger so the spray doesn’t get into the nectar.
Because it’s less concentrated, the spray will probably work for just a few days.
So there you have it: the real buzz on how to keep bees away from hummingbird feeders and the truth about commonly recommended tricks that don’t actually work. Go forth and conquer the battle of the buzz!
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