Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bee problems? A novel approach

A few years ago, when my hummingbirds were trying to cope with a huge yellow jacket infestation, I ended up helping them by pulling out my trusty hand vacuum cleaner to noisily suck out the offending marauders. When some hummingbirds were blocked access to the feeders by the wasps, they actually started tapping at my window to get my attention, as if saying, “Hey lady, grab that vacuum and get to work!” It worked and my hummingbirds were happy again, though I felt a little guilty for dispatching so many wasps. And I honestly don’t know how I would have handled it if the problem insects had been bees. Right now honeybees are having huge problems throughout the world, so no way would I be willing to suck even one out of my feeders with a vacuum, or to use any kind of chemical that could be harmful to them on my feeders. With bees in real trouble, I’d also never use one of those yellow bee traps, which don’t distinguish between yellow jackets and honeybees.

But this week on the Oklahoma bird listserv, a thoughtful poster named Phil Floyd wrote about a great answer to dealing with bees and wasps—effectively protecting hummingbirds from them without harming the insects. He wrote:
Last year my wife came up with a solution that worked wonderfully. She filled another feeder with extra sugar content, and also sprayed the outside of that feeder with the stronger feeding solution. She hung it an area away from the other feeders. Then she went to the hummingbird feeders covered with bees, scraped several of them off into a jar, and took them to the new target feeder. She repeated this a couple of times until word among the bees spread and they all started going to the new feeder. We continued to keep the one bee feeder full of extra sugary water, and kept spraying the outside with that same sugar solution. The bees took only to that one. Problem solved!
Phil adds, “It's why I married her.”

This is far and away the best answer to either a bee or wasp problem I’ve ever heard of. The vacuum cleaner solution only worked for me because I was hard at work on a book, constantly at my desk, right at the window with the feeder. I’ve read about people coating the feeder ports with Skin-So-Soft, cooking oil, Vaseline, and insect repellents, but I’d be very concerned about these working their way into the feeder and contaminating the solution. Setting out bee traps will kill those bees that enter them, but meanwhile the bees that discover the feeder alert their hive members to the feeder, and they focus their attentions on that. Some people also recommend moving the feeders from one spot to another. When the feeder is moved, the bees are very confused at first, but then start searching out new food sources. It usually doesn't take that long for one of them to find the relocated feeder and tell its hive about the new food source. Soon you have as many as before. You have to be exceptionally vigilant to keep up with them, and the method simply doesn’t work for those of us with just one or two good spots near our windows to place our feeders.

So the technique Phil Floyd describes sounds just about perfect, keeping hummingbirds happy while keeping bees and wasps well away without hurting them. I for one am very glad he married his wife.