Search of the Week: “what can I feed hummingbirds to get them protein”

salvia-flowers

Sugar water is a substitute for the nectars of hummingbird-pollinated flowers, which provide the birds with energy-rich sugars, water, some electrolyte salts, and little else. Almost everything else their bodies need, including protein, comes from eating insects, spiders, and other small arthropods. (Salvia sp. in my garden, copyright S. L. Williamson)

Hummingbirds do need extra protein in their diets during the nesting and molting seasons. Here are some tips for helping them meet their protein needs:

  • Don’t use broad-spectrum pesticides in your yard: Many common yard and garden pests, including aphids, whiteflies, and various annoying gnats and midges, are just the right size for hummingbirds to eat. Even if the birds don’t sicken and die from eating poisoned prey, spraying pesticides destroys an essential source of natural nutrition and makes your yard less attractive to them. Switch to targeted, low-risk remedies for specific pests, such as a hard spray of water under leaves for aphids and various forms of the natural pest pathogen “Bt” (Bacillus thuringiensis) for caterpillars and mosquitoes. Also, beware of purchasing hummingbird flowers from mainstream garden centers. Many of these plants have been unnecessarily treated with the same neonicotinoid pesticides that have been implicated in the terrifying declines of honeybees, native pollinators, and native insect-eating birds.
  • Cultivate a compost pile: Fruit flies are attracted to decaying vegetable matter, including fruit rinds and scraps. Garden experts often advise against adding fruit to compost piles/bins in part to discourage fruit flies, but these tiny insects provide excellent hummingbird food while aiding the composting process.
  • Grow your own fruit flies: There are lots of recipes on the Web. When a culture matures, just set the container in your garden and open it so the flies can escape.

The one thing you absolutely, positively should never, ever do is add protein supplements to your feeder solution. It’s unnatural, the solution will spoil much faster, and the birds will not like the taste. (Captive hummingbirds drink protein-rich liquid diets, but only because they have no choice. They’d much prefer flower nectar or sugar water for energy and water and a variety of insects and spiders for protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, etc.)

More on what to put (and not put) in your hummingbird feeder:

Feeder Solution Evolution, Part I: The Basics
Search of the Week: “is molasses ok to feed hummingbirds”
Feeding Hummingbirds: The dangers of red dye
Beet juice in hummingbird feeders: NO!
Search of the Week: “hummingbirds won’t eat instant nectar”
Search Roundup: Feeding hummingbirds
Keeping hummingbird feeders clean

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Search of the Week: “is sevin powder safe for hummingbirds”

Hummingbirds should be dusted with pollen, not pesticides.

Hummingbirds should be dusted with pollen, not pesticides.

NO! Sevin is an indiscriminate pesticide that’s considered moderately toxic to birds. Even if it doesn’t kill hummingbirds outright, it will kill their prey and deprive them of a vital food source. There are many safer and more targeted solutions available for controlling garden and household pests.

Mother Earth News: Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t

About.com: Natural & Organic Pest Control Solutions for the Garden

Grist: A guide to non-toxic pest control

Einstein was not an entomologist

Male Squash Bee in pumpkin flower

Squash Bees are among approximately 4000 species of native bees (and thousands of other native pollinators) in North America.

If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. – Albert Einstein

The quote above, as the caption to a photo of a honeybee, is making the rounds on Facebook. While I appreciate the environmental sentiment behind it, there are several serious problems:

  1. There’s no evidence that Einstein actually said or wrote this. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to bolster a statement’s credibility by misattributing it to a famous dead person.
  2. Even if he did, he was a physicist, not an entomologist or pollination ecologist. Being a genius in one field doesn’t make someone an instant expert in another. I’d be far more impressed if this quote was attributed to Steve Buchmann, but regrettably few people have heard of the University of Arizona’s eminent bee ecologist.
  3. “The bee” suggests that the quote refers to the honeybee (Apis mellifera), as we would understand that “the horse” refers to domestic horses and “the dog” refers to domestic dogs. There are thousands of other species of bees, and many of them are important to agriculture. North America’s native flora and indigenous agriculture got along quite well before European colonists introduced the honeybee, thank you very much.*
  4. I’m going to belabor the previous point, because I find it really annoying when people use “the [generic singular noun]” to make sweeping generalizations about large and diverse groups, e.g. saying “the hummingbird is the world’s smallest bird,” when many hummingbirds are larger than many small songbirds. AARGH!**

It’s hard to overstate the importance of pollinators, but too many people obsess over the honeybee without understanding their dark side. Yes, the decline in honeybee populations in North America is causing problems, mostly for beekeepers, the farms that use their services, and people who eat a lot of honey. From environmental and public safety perspectives, however, the decline isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As important as they are to agriculture, honeybees take food out of the mouths of native pollinators and present a real danger to people, pets, and livestock.

From most of the southern U.S. through Central and South America, the feral (“wild”) honeybee population carries genes from highly aggressive African strains that have earned them the nickname “killer bees.” Though virtually indistinguishable from pure European honeybees, Africanized bees attack en masse when they sense a threat to their hive. Even a single sting from any honeybee can be fatal to those allergic to their venom, but Africanized bees often sting their victims hundreds of times. You don’t have to be allergic to die from such an assault, and many people have. They also defend a larger area around their hives and will chase perceived predators farther than their European cousins do. Where these aggressive bees are known to occur, it’s prudent to assume that any feral honeybee hive is Africanized and give it a wide berth.

Native bees are excellent pollinators and nowhere near as dangerous to people and pets as honeybees. They already do much of the pollination work in our gardens, as long as some natural habitat remains nearby to support their nests and other ecological needs. If farmers are going to make effective use of native bees’ services, they’ll need to reduce field sizes and pesticide use and create mosaics of cultivation and native vegetation, and that’s also a good thing for thousands of other insect species plus birds, mammals, reptiles, etc. that can’t survive in our current agricultural wastelands.

References:

Bugguide.net: Native Bees of North America

Science Daily: Bees, Fruits and Money: Decline of Pollinators Will Have Severe Impact On Nature and Humankind

Science Daily: Honeybees May Not Be as Important to Pollination Services in the UK, Study Suggests

Science Daily: Native Bees Could Fill Pollinator Hole Left By Honeybees

Science Daily: Wild Pollinators Support Farm Productivity and Stabilize Yield

Montana Wildlife Gardener: Build a Mason Bee House in 5 Minutes

* Even if all bees of all species disappeared, we’d still have thousands of other pollinator species that fill similar ecological niches, including wasps and flies. Also, loss of pollinators wouldn’t directly affect crops that don’t need pollination: wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes come to mind.

** A FB commenter tried to defend the quote by claiming that the quotee was using “the bee” to refer to all pollinators(!). If so, why wouldn’t the quotee just say that explicitly? In fact, the history of the quote per Snopes.com suggests that it originated with French beekeepers, which supports the assumption that “the bee” in question is the honeybee.

Search of the week: “what could be the cause of a few of our hummingbirds dying”

This search makes me so sad, since chances are slim that these deaths are from natural causes. The leading suspects would be window collisions and pesticides, but a disease such as West Nile virus could also be involved.

If you find dead hummingbirds near windows or glass doors, they probably died from colliding with the glass while trying to escape from a predator or an aggressor. To prevent future deaths, you’ll need to reduce the mirror-like quality of the glass. This page from the Fatal Light Awareness Program busts many myths while providing a variety of options for reducing or eliminating collisions:

Bird-window collision reduction: Tips and techniques for residents

The American Bird Conservancy has just released a new product to apply to windows to save birds’ lives: BirdTape.

Pesticides are major killers of birds, and not just on farms. If you use chemical pesticides in your yard and garden, stop. Switch to low-toxicity alternatives such as insecticidal soaps, diatomaceous earth, pheromone traps, and biological controls. Don’t put leftover pesticides in your household trash; call your city or county for instructions on proper disposal. Lawn-care services are major offenders, applying harsh pesticides even when there isn’t a problem. If your current lawn-care service uses chemical pesticides, switch to a “greener” one that uses low-toxicity alternatives. If you suspect poisons might be drifting in from a neighbor’s yard, explain to them that anything that can kill a hummingbird can hurt people and pets, too. If your city or county sprays for mosquitoes, call the agency and ask what pesticide they’re using and whether it’s known to be toxic to birds and other wildlife.

To prevent diseases, clean and refill your hummingbird feeders every 2 to 4 days (more often in warmer weather), and disinfect water features weekly with a 10% solution of chlorine bleach. Search your yard for standing water that might be breeding mosquitoes. If you can’t eliminate the source, add a product containing Bacillis thuringensis israelensis or Bti, a naturally-occurring pathogen that kills mosquito larvae.

If all else fails, report the problem to a health and/or environmental quality agency at the city, county, or state level; the agency may want to test the carcasses for various contaminants and diseases. If the agency seems disinterested in the problem, remind them that birds can alert us to problems before they affect humans, and that they are protected under federal law (the Migratory Bird Treaty Act).

Good luck.

Wildflowers of the Sierra Madre

GrrlScientist posted a couple of photos of cultivated dahlias in Manhattan (one so pink it hurts my eyes), so I though I’d post photos of some relatives of this and other garden ornamentals that grow wild in the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Chihuahua.