It’s frustrating to put up a hummingbird feeder one day only to come back to enjoy the birds and find it overrun by ants the next.
Ants discourage hummingbirds from stopping at your feeder.
Even worse, the trail of pheromones they emit as they find their way to your feeder only results in raids by more ants.
Don’t get discouraged by ants in your hummingbird feeder. Here are 12 ways to keep them out.
Install an ant moat
Individual ants can scamper across flat surfaces, They can go up and down vertical surfaces.
They march in formation while hanging upside down on the underside of a branch or the hook you used to hang your hummingbird feeder.
Fortunately, individual ants can’t swim. Large groups of ants can form a ball and use the surface tension of water to float, but you won’t have that many ants at your feeder
An ant moat provides a liquid barrier between your hummingbird feeder and invading columns of ants.
You can buy hummingbird feeders with ant moats already installed. Or you can easily install an ant moat yourself.
If you have trouble searching when you type in the term “ant moat,” try “Droll Yankees Ant Moat” or “Hummers Galore Ant Moat.”
Just remember that ant moats only work when they are filled with water. Check the water daily in hot, dry weather.
A couple of great examples would be the Hummers Galore Ant Moat and the Droll Yankees Ant Moat. During summer, the water in the ant moat will dry up faster, so refill the ant moat with water when necessary.
Find and plug leaks
Sweet liquids are like magnets for ants. If your hummingbird feeder is leaking nectar, ants are sure to find every drip.
Leaks are the #1 reason hummingbird feeders attract ants. Inspect your hummingbird feeder for any leaks or loose connections and repair them right away. Keep any screw-in connections in your feeder tight so they don’t leak.
Hot and/or windy weather makes hummingbird feeders prone to leaks. Hot weather causes the nectar inside the feeder to expand so it overflows or finds leaks. Windy weather causes spills.
Older hummingbird feeders will spring more leaks in hot or windy weather. If you can’t keep up with the leaks in your feeder, it’s time to replace it.
Don’t forget the ant moat.
If you live in an exceptionally dry climate, hang your hummingbird feeder on fishing line
There are some locations, like Phoenix and Palm Springs, where it’s just not possible to keep ant moats filled. In extremely dry locations, ant moats won’t work, but you can hang feeders on fishing line
A fishing line (the line that you spin out of a rod and reel) is slippery. Ants can’t get a grip on it. This makes it a lot harder for ants to get in and out of your feeder.
A few ants may be able to get down the fishing line to your feeder, but it will be very rare for any to be able to climb back up and lay down a scent trail for the anthill to follow.
Make sure the fishing line is strong enough to hold up your feeder in the wind. Don’t add anything to make the fishing line slipperier, like Vaseline or grease.
Hummingbirds could brush up against the grease you put on the line and become disabled. A hummingbird that can’t fly has a very short life expectancy.
Wrap supports in adhesive tape
A more aggressive way to keep ants out of your hummingbird feeder is to wrap adhesive tape — the sticky side facing out — around the poles and wires you use to support your hummingbird feeder.
When you wrap sticky tape around the hummingbird feeder supports with the sticky side out, ants get stuck. Ironically, ants seem to love the sticky side of duct tape or electrical tape.
They’ll get stuck in the gum and won’t be able to reach your feeder at all (i.e., unless so many ants get stuck on the tape that they form an ant bridge across it).
You’ll need to check the tape periodically to make sure it’s still working, especially in the summer. In hot weather, the scent of the tape quickly wears off.
Ants will then ignore the tape and look for other ways to get into your hummingbird feeder.
Heat can melt the adhesive so it’s no longer sticky. In hot weather, you will need to replace the sticky tape about twice a week.
It helps to keep in mind that the exoskeletons of ants are pretty slick and oily themselves. You’ll need to use the stickiest tape you can find.
Buy a floating hummingbird feeder
Ceramics maker Jim Schatz left his office in Manhattan to work in a more natural setting upstate. “Living here, on a creek, exposed me to the birds,” Mr. Schatz said. “And the birds led me to think about bird products.”
Schatz made over 20 prototypes of hummingbird feeders before he hit on a favorite. He made a hummingbird feeder that looked like a chandelier. He made a hummingbird feeder that looked like a lily.
Finally, Schatz created a tiny hummingbird feeder that looks like a flower that floats on a line that carries it across the garden in the breeze.
Hummingbirds have no difficulty keeping up with the moving source of nectar, but ants won’t ever find a fixed location. And the floating hummingbird feeder keeps the birds safer from other predators, too.
A floating hummingbird feeder in a water feature probably isn’t a good idea, since fish like koi are capable of dining on hummingbirds. However, there is another way to integrate hummingbirds with water features in your landscape.
Hang your hummingbird feeder over a water feature
Hanging your hummingbird feeder over water has a number of advantages. Any leaks or spills are instantly diluted. They reduce the amount of food available for hummingbirds, but they will never attract ants.
It isn’t just ants that don’t swim. Cats don’t swim, either. Hanging the feeder over water offers additional protection for your hummingbird visitors.
And hanging your hummingbird feeder over a fountain or birdbath gives hummingbirds a chance to refresh themselves as they forage for food.
There are certain bodies of water that are not good places for hanging hummingbird feeders. Hanging a hummingbird feeder over a swimming pool invites mishaps with boisterous pool-goers or splashing.
Hanging a hummingbird feeder over natural bodies of water like creeks or streams in some parts of the country invites attacks by fish leaping out of the water and alligators.
Snakes may be able to climb out on beams and supports that ants can’t use.
But in a quiet garden, over a small feature, hummingbirds find an additional layer of protection that invites them to keep coming to your backyard.
Place your hummingbird feeder in dappled shade
Hummingbirds won’t use your feeder if they can’t find it. You won’t get very many visits from hummingbirds (although you may get visits from wood finches and woodpeckers) if you hang your hummingbird feeder in deep shade.
On the other hand, hanging your hummingbird feeder in full sun isn’t ideal, either. The sun can cause nectar to overheat and expand.
In the afternoon, a hummingbird feeder in full summer sun heats up like the interior of a car with the windows up. The nectar inside the feeder can easily reach temperatures of 140 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to 65 degrees Celsius).
A hummingbird visiting in the afternoon, not that you would see many, could burn its beak.
Overheating and competing birds are good reasons for hanging your hummingbird feeder in partial shade.
Just make sure that there aren’t any tree limbs or architectural features that make the feeder hard to find. Don’t put your hummingbird feeder behind a bush, a shrub, or a decorative pillar.
Move your hummingbird feeder around on a regular basis
Ants leave scent trails as they search for food and as they go back to their colony. They can become so numerous that you can see winding ant highways that wear down your grass.
If you are unsuccessful at keeping ants out of your hummingbird feeder altogether, you can at least move the feeder to new locations every week or two, so hordes of ants won’t find their way to it.
Moving your feeder makes the scent markers ants secrete to point other ants to their new food source.
Of course, you want to make sure hummingbirds continue to find the feeder even after it has been moved. Here are some tips.
- Hummingbirds will notice red feeders more readily than they will notice feeders painted in other colors. They also are attracted to red “nectar” in their feeder.
- For the same reason, it helps to move your feeder to various locations where you have planted red flowers.
- Keep your hummingbird feeder clean, checking at least every time you move it. Cloudy sugar water in your hummingbird feeder is potentially toxic to birds and much less attractive to them.
- Don’t worry if you only see one member of a pair of hummingbirds after you move the feeder. Male hummingbirds don’t hang around to help with nest maintenance after baby hummingbirds have hatched,
Clean your hummingbird feeder every day
Cleaning your hummingbird feeder removes those last few inches of pheromone trail that ants use to find the sugar water inside it.
Most hummingbird feeders are easy to wipe down, and daily cleanings are a great way to keep large numbers of ants from finding the feeder.
While you are wiping off any residue that might attract ants, check for drips and leaks.
Tighten screw-in connections or remove some sugar water from the feeder so it won’t expand too much in the afternoon heat
Hang bunches of bay or mint leaves near your hummingbird feeder
The essential oils in bay leaf and mint repel ants. Ants don’t like the smell of rosemary, lavender, thyme, or tansy, either.
Catnip is an ant repellent, but you really don’t want to attract cats to your hummingbird feeder.
Tie some bags of mint or bay leaves on the supporting pole or on the string on which your hummingbird feeder hangs. Scatter bay leaves on the ground when you see a leak or a drip.
Placing a hummingbird feeder near live and blooming lavender, sage, or borage attracts hummingbirds and repels ants.
Spray neem oil around the base of the pole or supports for your hummingbird feeder.
Neem is the cooling, antiseptic herb made from the leaves and fruit of the neem tree.
It doesn’t have any particular effect on hummingbirds, but ants don’t like it. Spraying neem oil around the base of whatever is holding up your hummingbird feeder keeps ants away but doesn’t bother birds.
Nearly all insecticides are toxic to both bugs and birds. Don’t use them around your hummingbird feeder.
Use botanical deterrents to keep ants away
There are a number of household ingredients that make ants turn around in their tracks:
- Cayenne pepper won’t sting your ants (they don’t have the facial nerves that are especially sensitive to the capsaicin in cayenne that people do), but it will disrupt their scent trails.
- Vinegar also disrupts scent trails. Use it at ground level, not on the feeder.
- Essential oil of cloves, available from pharmacies (it’s a toothache remedy), repels ants at the bottom of support poles.
- Lemon water also confuses ants’ sense of smell.
Oil of cloves will kill ants, but it evaporates quickly. Any of these botanical ingredients has to be reapplied after rain or lawn watering.
Frequently asked questions about keeping ants out of hummingbird feeders
Q. Will hummingbirds drink nectar with ants in it?
A. Hummingbirds aren’t usually so picky about their food sources that they are deterred by one or two floating ants.
That’s not necessarily a good thing. Decaying ants can contaminate the nectar and spread disease-causing bacteria to hummingbirds.
Q. Does the red food coloring I add to sugar water have any effect on ants?
A. The only thing that red food coloring added to the sugar water you put out for hummingbirds is the birds themselves.
Red dyes in high amounts can interfere with bird immune function (and human immune function, for that matter).
You are better off, and so are the birds, if you leave the food coloring out. But ants are not affected either way.
Q. Is there any kind of detergent I should use to clean my feeder that keeps ants away?
A. You shouldn’t use detergents or soaps to clean your hummingbird feeder.
The residue is not beneficial to birds. Hot water is enough to remove sugar, insect debris, and germs.
Q. Are ants a problem if I keep my hummingbird feeder going all winter?
A. The Audubon Society points out that there are species of hummingbirds that don’t go south for the winter.
Several species of hummingbirds regularly overwinter along the Gulf Coast, southern Arizona, and south Florida.
Anna’s Hummingbirds are resident from northwestern Baja California along the Pacific coast to British Columbia, Allen’s Hummingbirds are resident in coastal Southern California, and Costa’s Hummingbirds are resident in Baja California, southeast California to western Arizona.”
The secret to feeding hummingbirds in the winter is keeping their feeder warm enough that it doesn’t freeze while not heating so much territory that ants stay active.
Hang an incandescent light near the feeder to keep it warm, but let cooler winter temperatures keep the ants in check.
Q. Will Vaseline keep ants out of my hummingbird feeder?
A. Yes, but the problem with Vaseline is that hummingbirds can get it on their wings if you use it on the line you use to hang the feeder or the feeder itself.
If you live in a dry climate, a ring of Vaseline at the bottom of your feeder may keep ants away for as long as a year if it doesn’t rain.
Q. Is there any way to direct ants away from my hummingbird feeder?
A. Sometimes when ants invade your hummingbird feeder, what they are really looking for is water, not food. You can put out water for ants so they can get their hydration without climbing up to your hummingbird feeder.
Or, as we suggested earlier, you can hang your hummingbird feeder over water. That way ants can get water directly instead of marching to your feeder.
On the other hand, sometimes ants really are looking for food. This is usually the case when you have set out your hummingbird feeder in a very well-watered lawn. Water your grass a little less frequently, and you may have just as many hummingbirds but fewer ants.
The National Parks Service reminds us that “Ants can get their water from many sources inside a structure: condensation on pipes and air conditioners, leaky plumbing, aquariums, pet dishes, houseplant containers, floor drains, etc.”
You may need to take care of these sources of water so you can direct ants to the water where you want them to find it.
Q. What’s the one thing to remember about keeping ants out of hummingbird feeders?
A. Cleanliness is next to ant-less-ness.
If you clean up spills, crumbs, and debris, ants won’t have anything to eat, and they’ll leave your hummingbird feeder alone.
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