Hummers are on bug patrol

Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife CROSSING PATHS. Spring 2005

It's bug season.

And with an extremely mild winter across Washington this year, the spring and summer crop of gnats, mosquitoes, flies and other pesky insects may be greater than usual. Drought conditions could keep those populations in check, but they could also make birdbaths and other water sources a magnet for thirsty bugs.

As a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary manager you know that some of the birds attracted to your landscape will feed on many of those insects. That' s why you celebrate the return of swallows and install nest boxes to encourage their temporary residency.

But did you know that hummingbirds are also de-bugging your place?

Those dainty little nectar-drinkers are major insectivores. Tiny as they are, those high-energy bodies can' t exist on carbohydrates alone. They need protein to build muscle and replace feathers.

Research has shown that hummingbirds consume aphids, gnats, mosquitoes, spiders, and other small insects or insect larvae. Their long tongues have brushy tips to trap insects they find on flowering plants or on the wing.

They' ve been known to pluck insects, or spiders themselves, right out of spider webs, taking some of that web silk with them to their nests. They' ve also been observed hovering over streams or other water sources in the midst of insect clouds, snatching high-protein meals left and right.

Obviously hummingbird tongues, inside those long slender bills, are built for extracting nectar from tubular flowers. To eat and drink, a hummingbird' s tongue is divided at the end into two rolled, muscular halves. These halves act like a double trough to soak up nectar and water, while the tips trap insects. Most hummingbirds drink nectar from flowers for the instant energy that carbohydrates and sugars provide. These birds expend more energy for their weight than any other animal in the world, mostly in helicopter-like flying and keeping their tiny, heat-radiating bodies warm.

Hummers meet their high energy demand by eating more than half their weight in food and drinking up to eight times their body weight in water every day. They convert some carbs into fats that burn efficiently longer, but they also need nitrogen to make protein.

After glucose, fructose, and sucrose, the most common chemicals in flower nectar are nitrogen-rich amino acids. And there' s protein in the pollen inadvertently picked up while drinking nectar from flowers. But scientists think hummers evolved as insectivores to develop a more complete diet.

Bugs are tremendous sources of fat, protein, nitrogen, and amino acids -- the very things hummingbirds need to make baby hummingbirds, build strong bodies, and zip to far-off tropical areas to spend the winter.

Think of it as surviving in the short term on a high carb diet, but needing more complete and balanced nutrition for the long term goals of reproduction, growth and migration.

So if you have lots of nectar-producing flowers in your garden, provide water, and avoid using insecticides, you' re likely to draw hummers looking for a healthy lifestyle.

Your clean hummingbird feeders with properly-prepared sugar water (four parts boiled water to one part sugar, without additives like food coloring) supplements the natural flower nectar supply.

If your sugar solution attracts ants, bees or wasps, don' t count on the hummers being insectivore-enough to take care of the intruders, though. Rather than using insect repellents that could hurt the birds, try applying petroleum jelly around the openings of the feeders and on the wire from which it hangs. Or spray the feeder with a fine mist of water to both chase away the insects for a while and provide a hummer shower.

The main benefit of feeders, of course, is drawing those little jewels close for your observing pleasure. Next time you' re watching, see if you can catch a glimpse of them also providing you with a little bug control.

© 2005 Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife