(Photo by Chad Merda)
If bees have been invading your hummingbird feeders lately, you're not alone.
The feeders at Plum Creek Nature Center have also seen an increase in insect activity of late, said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District.
"As summer is winding down and we start to head into fall, there are some changes going on in the environment that affect bee and wasp behaviors and that in turn may cause us to notice them more," Bryerton said.
Those insect invaders at your hummingbird feeders likely aren't all bees; it's probably a mix of wasps and bees, including honeybees and native bees, he said. There aren't more of them at this time of year. Instead, we just tend to notice them more as summer begins to give way to fall.
"It is just the change in the season and their prepping for winter that brings us into contact with them more and allows us to be more aware of their presence," he said.
Why we are seeing them more now, and why they are visiting hummingbird feeders, varies a bit between honeybees, native bees and wasps. In the case of honeybees, they are busy this time of year because they are collecting as much food — nectar and pollen — as they can before winter, when food will be scarce.
Around this time of year, flowers become more and more scarce as they begin to die back as fall approaches. Honeybees become more visible around this time because they are working as hard as they can to collect food for winter, Bryerton said.
"They need to get as much food as they can to survive the winter, when they stay in the hive and rely on the stored food to make it until spring," he said.
We also see a lot of yellow jacket activity at this time of year, and that's because all the workers are no longer needed to bring food back to the nest to feed the larvae. Instead, yellow jackets, which are wasps, not bees, are searching out sugary foods and protein sources for themselves.
"They will eat fruit, fruit juices, sugary drinks and will also go for a sandwich," Bryerton said. "This is why they seem to hang around when we have outdoor meals or picnics."
Native bees are also more visible at this time of year because they, too, are preparing to survive the winter. Native bees, which include bumblebees, sweat bees, mason bees and carpenter bees, are different than honeybees, Bryerton said. Unlike honeybees, which were brought to the United States by early European immigrants, these bees existed here long before it was settled by humans. They are solitary bees, living alone instead of in large colonies like honeybees.
In the case of bumblebees, the offspring produced at this time of year are the new queens and males that leave the nest and do not return. Like honeybees, the queens feed heavily at this time of year, gathering nectar and pollen to store so they can feed on it all winter, Bryerton said. Many other native bee species use similar survival strategies, with the queens — fertilized females — active at this time of year as they gather food to survive the winter in hibernation, usually either underground or in wood.
With many bees and wasps in search of food sources as they prepare for winter, hummingbird feeders are an obvious choice because they provide a good supply of nectar. Sometimes, though, when your feeder is an attractive food source for bees and other insects, it keeps the hummingbirds away, according to The Spruce.
If bees and wasps are a problem at your feeder, try moving it to another spot in your yard. Hummingbirds will look for a new food source and find the relocated feeder, but insects are less inclined to seek out food sources when they move, The Spruce reports. A shady spot is a good choice, because many insects prefer feeding in full sunlight, but the shade won't deter hummingbirds.
And if you have a yellow feeder or a feeder with yellow accents or feeder guards, consider swapping it out for a red feeder or removing the yellow parts or painting over them with non-toxic paint. Bees and wasps are attracted to yellow, while they find red less appealing, The Spruce reports.
If all else fails, you may want to consider swapping out your hummingbird feeder for one that is designed to keep insects at bay. Some feeders, such as sauce feeders, are designed with this in mind, and you can also buy accessories for many feeders that help keep insects away from your homemade nectar.
Remember, though, that the bees are important to the health of the ecosystem too, and we want them in our yards, visiting our flowers and gardens. Instead of trying to outsmart them, consider adding a food source designed specifically for them. Try placing a yellow feeder filled with sweet nectar — even sweeter than what you add to your hummingbird feeders — in an open, sunny spot in your yard, The Spruce suggests.
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