For the Birds Radio Program: Wasps

Original Air Date: Aug. 22, 2003

Laura found a novel way to control wasps at her hummingbird feeder. Date verified.

Audio missing



This month I have had more hummingbirds at my feeders than ever before. As they stoke up before migration, my feeders have been providing as much entertainment for me as food for the hummingbirds.

But sugar water also attracts wasps. My favorite hummingbird feeder is at the window just over my desk, where I work most of the day, so I notice how much trouble wasps give hummers. One particularly aggressive wasp actually chases them off.

And the wasps don’t limit their exploits to the sugar water feeder—they’ve also been visiting my mealworm feeder. I feel uneasy setting out mealworms—their little bodies wriggle with life, and clearly prefer to stay that way. I justify buying them because they provide so much nutrition for my chickadees, nuthatches, and robins, and allowed me the pleasure of having a Red-bellied Woodpecker most of the spring. It feels sort of sad putting these innocent little grubs out for birds to eat, but at least the birds seem to kill them instantly.

That’s not the way the wasps go about it. I don’t know enough about the life cycles of wasps to be sure what they’re doing to the little grubs–laying eggs in them or sucking them dry–but when a wasp digs in, the mealworms writhe in agony for a long time.

I’ve been brooding about this for weeks, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when a wasp chased one of my chickadees away. Something snapped in me, and the wasps had to go.

But how? My hummingbird feeder dangles, so it would be hard to smack a wasp effectively on it, and impossible to smack one in flight I could hardly use pesticides, risking hurting the hummingbirds. Suddenly it hit me—I could vacuum them up. So I took the little handheld vacuum I use for my car, unhooked the screen, and within minutes had sucked in several wasps. All day long, whenever a wasp turned up in the feeder, I’d pop out the screen and whip out the vacuum cleaner. I was surprised at how quickly the hummingbirds learned that I was after the wasps, not them. At least one male or one female would sit in a tree branch less than six feet away and watch, and the moment I turned off the vacuum would zip to the now-waspless feeder, even before I’d replaced the window screen.

The head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Non-Game Wildlife program, Carrol Henderson, writes in his “Wild about Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide,” recommends using bee guards on the ports of hummingbird feeders, or, when the feeder design doesn’t allow that, he suggests rubbing Avon Skin-so-soft ® or Off Skintastic ® onto the feeder surface by the feeding ports to repel wasps and bees.

Virtually all hummingbirds light out of the upper Midwest by the end of August. I always keep my feeders out as long as any hummingbirds are anywhere around. Hummingbirds leave on their own when their body fat is at the right level, so we don’t need to worry about our feeders making them linger, and the sugar water can be of enormous value to young hummers who haven’t reached full bulk before the first frosts. A lot of people have problems with raccoons or deer at their feeders. Many people don’t want to waste their hard-earned money feeding squirrels. My mother-in-law, in Port Wing, Wisconsin, has to bring her feeders in every night to keep them from being raided, and sometimes destroyed or carried away, by bears. So I guess a few little tiny wasps aren’t much to complain about. But now one of my hummingbirds actually looks into the window at my desk to see where the heck I am when a wasp is in the feeder, so I guess I’ll keep vacuuming.