Backyard Victory Over Insects



by George H. Harrison

The Problem with Insects

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of Americans are stung by wasps, hornets and bees. Some of these victims are tending bird feeders or birdhouses when they are attacked. Most suffer only burning pain. Some 85,000 others seek medical treatment for allergic reactions and at least 50 of them die, according to the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology.

            A birdhouse containing a wasp nest not only keeps birds away, it presents a danger to the unsuspecting backyard birder who opens the birdhouse in the hope of seeing a bird nest or to clean it at the end of the season.

            Wasps, hornets and bees are often attracted to hummingbird and oriole feeders that contain sugar water and sometimes to suet feeders. Hummingbirds are easily intimidated by the presence of the belligerent wasps or bees and back off without feeding. The danger to people occurs when the insects are disturbed, as when the feeders are taken down for refilling.

            Ants are also a problem at hummingbird and oriole feeders, drawn to the sweet liquid. Feeders covered with ants are often unacceptable to the birds that are meant to feed from them.


War Stories

“I was taking down the hummingbird feeder to replenish the sugar water when wasps attacked me,” reported Alice Jefferson in San Jose, California. “I was stung three times on my hand before I dropped the feeder and ran into the house,” she said. “I immediately put ice cubes on the stings, but by that time my hand was already greatly swollen and discolored.”

            A 10-year-old boy swallowed a bee when he took a gulp of cola from a can during a backyard picnic in Virginia. He was rushed to a hospital in nearby Front Royal for treatment of an allergic reaction to insect venom.

            A hunter in Illinois who sat under his favorite squirrel tree was stung on the hand and face by yellow jackets. He became woozy, confused and had difficulty breathing. His eyes itched and he coughed as a constriction developed in his chest. His heart pounded and he started to sweat profusely. Heading for home, he collapsed and died.

            “For years, I had hummingbird feeders in my yard.” wrote Margaret Pigg of Marshville, North Carolina. “It seemed that no matter where I put them, ants soon found them and kept the hummingbirds away,” she said.



Paradoxically, wasps are efficient predators of many other pest insects. Their diets also include meat, fruits and other sweets, making garbage and picnic areas prime food gathering sites. By keeping tight lids on garbage cans and by picnicking away from garbage, encounters with yellow jackets and other wasps should be limited. For wasps that linger around feeding stations and birdhouses, here are more solutions.

Fight the Stingers

One way to reduce the population of wasps, hornets and bees around bird feeders is to trap them. Wasp traps, easily obtainable in stores, are plastic, globe-shaped, covered reservoirs that can be baited with sugar water, meat or fish scraps and hung near the bird feeders to lure the stinging insects inside. Once in, they are unable to find their way out. Dozens may been caught in a single day.

            “Wasps were pests at my hummingbird feeders, but I solved the problem with cooking oil,” Betty Rochester of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, wrote in Birds & Blooms. “Each time I clean out my feeder, I dip my finger in oil and rub it around the feeding ports. It works,” Betty assured. “My feeders have been wasp-free for four years.”

            Another way to discourage bees and other stinging insects from sugar-water feeders is to mount bee guards on the feeder ports. On hummingbird feeders, bee guards are small, round, plastic grates that slip over the feeding tube, restricting the insects’ access but allowing the hummers to feed through the grates with their long bills and tongues. On oriole feeders, bee guards are usually spring-loaded blocks over the feeding holes. An oriole opens a port by lowering the block with its weight as it lands on the feeder.

            A wasp nest in a birdhouse should be sprayed with a wasp insecticide and then removed and the house cleaned of the toxins to again make it usable for the birds.

Spray Judiciously

To destroy wasps’ or yellow jackets’ hanging globe-shaped nests, or nests in underground burrows, they may be sprayed, preferably at night, from as far as 12 feet away with an insecticide such as Raid Wasp & Hornet Killer.

            As tempting as it may be to spray pesticides at bird feeders, it is ill advised. The pesticides contain toxins that may be harmful to the birds that feed from the ports where the insects would be sprayed.

Ant Defenses

Margaret Pigg discovered that the ultimate way to rid her hummingbird feeders of ants was to place a small wooden post in the middle of the recirculating pool in her backyard. Then, she hung her sugar water feeders from the post. “The arrangement really works beautifully,” she reported in Birds & Blooms. “The ants can’t get to the feeders and the hummers are attracted to the trickling water, too.”

            Another very effective ant controller is a little cup, available commercially from most bird stores, lawn-and-garden centers and hardware stores that is designed to hang between the sugar-water feeder and the hook from which the feeder is suspended. When the cup is filled with water, ants cannot cross over it to get to the feeder.

            An option to the water-filled cups is to slather the wire or string holding the feeder with cooking oil or Vasoline. Ants will not cross the oily surface to get to the sugar water.

            Make your own ant moat, recommended Charley Sayre of Newark, Ohio. “Most cans of spray paint have a plastic cap with a built-in ‘moat’ inside,” he told the readers of Birds & Blooms. Charley drilled a hole slightly smaller than K-inch diameter in the center of the cap. Then he inserted a small screw eye into each end of a 2H- or 3-inch-long K-inch dowel. “Push the dowel through the hole until the cap is centered on it, fill the cap with water and hang the simple ant-stopper above the feeder. It really works,” he said.

Feeder Repellents

There are some substances that can be applied directly on feeders to destroy insects’ ability to smell the sugar water or nectar. Avon’s Skin-So-Soft or Vicks VapoRub, for example, can be rubbed on the spouts or around the ports (not in the ports) of the feeders to deter insects from feeding there.

What to Do if Stung

Four to eight of every 1,000 of us are allergic to the venom of wasps, hornets and bees and a sting could be fatal within 10 to 15 minutes (80 percent of venom-related deaths occur within one hour). That’s why insects are responsible for many more deaths annually in the U.S. than snakebite.

            If you or a companion ever suffers from such an allergic reaction, the victim should be rushed to a medical center for treatment.

            Outdoor people, however, are often a long way from medical help and may require first aid in the field. First, scrape out the stinger with a knife (bees’ stingers detach in their victims). Do not pull it out or squeeze it because that will force more venom into the wound. Next, wash and disinfect the sting site. Then apply ice packs and/or a paste of baking soda and water to relieve pain.

            Most importantly, be alert for symptoms of an allergic reaction-itching around the eyes, dry, hacking cough, widespread hives, constriction of the chest and throat, wheezing, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting and dizziness. If they appear, get medical help at once.

            If you know you are allergic to insect venom, carry an anti-sting Hollister-Stier Ana-Kit, which includes a syringe preloaded with epinephrine (adrenaline). You’ll need a doctor’s prescription. Another useful tool is the Sawyer First Aid Kit, which includes The Extractor, a suction device that removes the venom of insects and snakes. Use After Bite, a dab of ammonia or application of ice to reduce itching and promote healing.


The Nature of the Beasts

All 4,000 wasp species in the United States have the capacity to sting, yet surprisingly, only a few are a threat to people. That’s because nearly all wasps are solitary and inoffensive and they sting solely to paralyze their insect prey. Only members of the subfamily Vespinae, which includes yellow jackets, paper wasps and hornets, use their stings primarily for defense and may attack humans.

            Where do all the wasps come from? Each spring, a queen yellow jacket emerges from winter hibernation and lays eggs either underground or in a small gray paper globe that she builds. The eggs become workers in a few weeks, allowing the queen to produce more workers, as many as 5,000 per nest, that become food gatherers, feeders of young, nest builders and guards. These are the bees that most often threaten people.

            In late summer, the queen lays eggs of a different sort. Some of these are future queens and some are males that will breed with future queens. The young males and queens soon fly out of the nest and mate with those from other nests.

            As fall approaches, the males, workers and the old queen all die. The gray paper orb nests are deserted, except for a few corpses of workers. Only the new queens survive to hibernate in a tree cavity through the winter and emerge in spring to start the cycle all over again.


From Squirrel Wars by George H. Harrison. Copyright © 2000 George H. Harrison. Excerpted by arrangement with Willow Creek Press. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-850-9453 or click here.