Bees are essential for our gardens but is there a harmless way to keep them away from hummingbird feeders? Use these tips to bee-proof your sugar water feeder and save it just for the hummingbirds.
Want to know when to expect them in spring? See the hummingbird migration map here.
Bee-Free Hummingbird Feeders
Those of us who love hummingbirds know those dear little hummers aren’t the only ones attracted to sugar water feeders.
While all sorts of creatures from ants to squirrels to bears and various other birds will have a drink if they can, one of the most common problems is bees.
There is no question that—love them or not—native bees are vital to our ecosystems.
But, just wanting to enjoy hummingbirds at the feeder, we ask:
Is there a way to safely provide hummingbird feeders without attracting or harming bees?
Late summer in particular is a time when bees start swarming hummingbird feeders. With natural nectar sources waning, that sugar water is fast and easy source of food.
We’re focussing on bees here but wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets may also get involved.
If you feed hummingbirds you know—they are small but feisty, territorial birds, and sharing food is not in their best interest.
Some will waste a lot of energy trying to chase bees away. And, bees may go after the hummingbirds as well.
To be fair, every animal is just doing what it needs to do to survive. And taking advantage of an easy food source makes sense. Plus, it is a problem we have caused by putting up feeders so humane solutions are the only way to go.
To deal with the problem immediately, remove the feeder for a week or two. Break up the brawl. After all, sugar water is just a supplement, not the main diet for hummingbirds. They rely on bugs (protein) and nectar plants (carbs) to survive—things we should be providing ongoing by growing a diverse selection of native plants in a pesticide-free environment.
With the feeder down, you have time to follow the tips (below) for a fresh start when the time is right.
The bees, meanwhile, will move on to whatever natural sources they can find.
Want Pollinators in Your Garden?
- Choose plants, trees, and shrubs used by local wildlife for food and habitat during all stages of life. Options will be different in each growing region.
- Avoid products like pesticides that are toxic to pollinators and other animals in the food chain.
- Keep it natural: sustainable gardens are not tidy. Dead and decaying things nourish living things.
You can read more ecological gardening tips here.
Tips For Hummingbird Feeders Without Bees
1Choose the Right Feeder
Recommended Hummingbird Feeder
Hummingbird Feeder | Amazon
I like this style of feeder for a few reasons. First, it provides a perch for the birds as they feed. This is important so they don’t waste energy. Also, it’s easy to clean, which helps prevent disease.
Check for these things when buying a hummingbird feeder:
- Saucer style with perch for hummingbirds to rest while they eat.
- Clear saucer—makes it easy to monitor the sugar water.
- Red cover and perches—not yellow or other colors.
- Small feeding ports—just right for the hummingbird’s narrow tongue but too small for bees.
- Easy to clean: sticky feeders attract bees.
How a hummingbird feeder is designed can make a huge difference.
- A well-designed feeder is just right for hummingbirds, unattractive to the bees, and easy for us to dismantle, clean, and replenish the sugar water on a regular basis.
- There are well-made feeders available that accomplish all these things, but you have to check carefully before you shop. None are perfect but some are much better than others.
This is the recommended style:
Saucer-style hummingbird feeder
This is not recommended:
Bottle-style hummingbird feeder
First, choose a saucer style feeder— not the type with the upside-down bottle reservoir.
The saucer-style is best because it lets you control the distance between the feeding ports (the openings) and the sugar water. The bottle-style fills the feeder right up—you don’t want this.
Small Feeding Ports
- Hummingbirds use their long, proboscis (tongue-like structure) to reach into the ports to siphon up the sugar water. This reach may extend as much as 1.5-inches into the port—the same way they collect nectar from long, tubular flowers.
- Bees, on the other hand, have much shorter tongues and must instead crawl close to their food. And that’s our clue.
By keeping the sugar water levels below the ports —at least ½ inch or 12mm below—combined with small port openings (around ¼ inch or 6mm in diameter), the hummingbirds have access and most bees do not.
I say “most bees” because there are many shapes and sizes. But overall, that small opening combined with a low sugar water level can be enough to keep that nectar out of reach for the bees.
If the ports on your feeder are too wide, you can buy “bee guards” to fit certain brands of feeders.
There are two basic styles. One partially obstructs the opening above the port, the other narrows the opening below it.
Either way, a bee guard can help if available for your specific feeder. They are not one-size-fits-all, so shop carefully.
Red Not Yellow
If you have a choice, choose an all-red feeder.
- Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red—which is why feeders are usually red in color. That said, we never add red food coloring to sugar water—that is harmful to the birds. But a red feeder is a good choice.
- Bees use both color and odor cues to find food sources.
By keeping the sugar water level below the ports, we’re not just reducing physical access but blocking the alluring scent of sugar as well.
For color, bees perceive ultraviolet color patterns (that we cannot see) and red is not on their spectrum.
This doesn’t mean they cannot see red feeders; it just means the color doesn’t stand out to them the way certain other colors do including yellow, orange, blue, green, and violet.
Unfortunately, a lot of feeders are not really designed with consideration for what’s best for hummingbirds. And the average consumer won’t know what to look for.
For example, most hummingbird feeders are red (good), but they often come with yellow accents which attract bees (not so good). You will often see feeders with yellow plastic ports shaped like flowers or yellow bee guards. While this looks pretty to humans, it’s counter-productive when we want hummers and not bees to feed there.
It’s not a deal breaker, just another silly thing that could be better.
2Clean Your Feeder Daily
Even with a good feeder design, your feeder is going to get sticky. Have you ever seen a hummingbird take a nice long drink and then straighten up to spit out the surplus? It’s quite funny to watch and the bees are cheering for that—now there’s sugar water all over the feeder!
Wash your feeder often. More often than you want to. In fact, set a reminder in your phone to check on it daily. On cool days it may not need it but the warmer it is, the faster that sugar water goes bad.
At peak summer, I have to change mine a few times a day. And, in the worst heat waves, I just remove the feeders because I can’t keep up with it. Once that water is cloudy, it begins to ferment or form mold and the hummers (smartly) won’t want it anyways.
It’s also smart to have several feeders on hand so you always have a clean one ready to go.
If you have the right feeder and you’re keeping it clean (not sticky) but the bees are still showing up, a location change may help.
If possible, find a spot with some shade since the bees tend to stay in the sun. Ideally it’s a location where the hummingbirds will feel safe and secure while they feed and you can still enjoy them.
The bonus to a part-shade location is it helps keep the sugar water fresh longer.
What to Avoid
The goal is to enjoy your hummingbird feeder while supporting hummingbirds, bees, and the whole circle of life in the garden.
Ignore advice to use any oils, sprays, petroleum jelly, essential oils, vinegar, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, cayenne pepper, vegetable oil, drug store products like Vicks vapo rub, and so on.
These things do not belong in a garden and range from useless to harmful to animals and the ecosystem.
If a feeder problem is ongoing and does not resolve with these tips, just remove it. It’s the pesticide-free native plants providing an abundance of food and habitat that really matter.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, bees bother hummingbirds and hummingbirds bother bees. They all need nectar and, while they tend to source it from different flower species, both will be attracted to sugar water at hummingbird feeders.
The most likely reason bees start gathering at a hummingbird feeder is because their natural nectar sources are not so readily available and the feeder has lots of easy-to-reach sugar water.
To solve the problem immediately, remove the feeder and keep it down for a week or so. When it’s time to try again, use a clean, saucer-style feeder with narrow feeding ports and only fill it half way. This makes it accessible to the hummingbirds but not the bees.
It is never recommended to use any products like this near feeders or anywhere in the garden. If bees are crowding your hummingbird feeder, remove the feeder for a week and use our tips to learn which feeder style is best.
An ant moat will stop ants from reaching your hummingbird feeder. Hang up an ant moat and suspend your feeder from it. The moat is a little plastic cup filled with water. Unable to swim across, the ants cannot reach the feeder and give up. This has instructions for a DIY ant moat.
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More About Hummingbirds
- Birds vs. bees: Study helps explain how flowers evolved to get pollinators to specialize
Science Daily | Flowers that were thought to have evolved to lure hummingbirds, actually have combinations of traits that discourage wasteful visits by bumblebees.
- Where do hummingbirds go in winter? | Empress of Dirt
- What is the right hummingbird sugar water ratio? | Empress of Dirt
This includes recipes for batches from small to large depending on how much you need.
- When should I remove my hummingbird feeders in fall? | Empress of Dirt
It’s fine to keep your feeders up—the birds will migrate when it’s time. But, do remove your feeders before freezing temperatures set in to avoid damage to glass or plastic.
- When do hummingbirds fly south in fall? | Empress of Dirt
- The Story of a Hummingbird Falling in Love With Our Cat | Empress of Dirt
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛