The ant and the hummingbird: A sugary-sweet tale of persistence

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I do believe that an ant's favorite holiday must be Labor Day. As eusocial creatures whose every activity requires block party-level involvement, ants eagerly bustle through their days as causative workers in an involved community. They are all sisters, since males are only produced when the colony is ready to begin new again, ever ruled by their fair queen.

Ants are poster children for what any corporation worth its salt wants to instill in its workforce: efficiency with minimum wasted effort and effective two-way communication. Both are clear, measurable goals, equal to my form of ant measurement: how many are on my hummingbird feeder at any given moment. I am no myrmecologist, but for how often I've counted heads at the feeder this summer, I've emerged a pupil of their goals and habits.

On the other side of the ring, we have the tiny but fierce ruby-throated hummingbird. Every bit as diligent as ants, but less extroverted toward their kin, ruby-throated hummingbirds spend their summers here in Eastern North America, where they migrate to breed. Soon enough, as summer slips toward fall, these wee birds will begin their flight journey back to the warmer winter climates offered by Central America, Mexico and Florida. It's really a perfect life layout, except for the bone-weary trip in between, and the ants who unintentionally impede pre-flight fueling.

Hummingbirds do not stand down to most threats. They will tangle with a larger bird, such as a robin, if needed, and they don't pull their punches if I get too close to their feeder when they are hungry. They are gutsy, holding back only when necessary, like when bees and wasps are lurking about, or when ants have initiated a pool party in the nectar of their feeder.

Ant contamination poses a problem for the health of the hummingbird. And birds who are used to feeding on flower nectar must find ant-infused water downright gross. Egos bruised, my yard's adorably narcissist hummingbirds are prone to sulking beside the feeder, waiting for a fresh refill when too many ants cloud the nectar.

For a good part of summer, I did just that. I refilled the feeder at least once a day and cooked up more hummingbird nectar alongside our dinner preparations. It's a simple syrup concoction, as easily added to my feeder as an evening cocktail. Sugar's not that expensive, but as my bag quickly dwindled, I reconsidered my nectar output. I could not blame the sugar-hungry ants for their unrelenting march to my hummingbird feeder, but surely, I could figure out a way to upend their daily conquest.

"Try drawing chalk lines," a well-meaning friend told me. I drew a kindergarten-worthy circle around the base of my feeder mount, feeling rather silly. Later in the week, I retraced it with baby powder. The intelligent ants giggled at me.

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Similarly, I was told to try wood ash. I gathered a cupful from the fire pit, tenderly remembering the s'mores of the night before, and spread it where the baby powder had blown away. The ants did keep their distance — until the rains came that evening and reset the scoreboard. It seemed easier to continue making copious amounts of simple syrup rather than visiting the fire pit every few days.

A store clerk suggested I try greasing the pole where my hummingbird feeder hangs. Vaseline or cooking spray were offered as suggestions. I didn't try it for two reasons: my feeder mount is mostly made of wood, and I was worried the hummingbirds would get grease on their feathers.

I didn't want to experiment with anything that would harm the ants, either. It was unjust to kill them simply because they were running to the nectar I kept putting out under their noses. They are just ants being ants.

Essential oils were my next choice. I doused the ant path with peppermint and watched, transfixed, as the ants struggled to keep rank, dizzily spinning off from their path. Their odor receptors could not handle the minty overload, and the hummingbirds fed well on the days I remembered to sprinkle the oil along the ant path.

I supplemented this with a sugar water lure placed a few feet away from the hummingbird feeder. The resilient ants who made it past the peppermint coating, but found their sense of direction confused, would wobble their way over to my lure, where they were justly rewarded with nectar. This set-up worked best, leaving all parties happy, including me and my altruistic feelings.

There is one more deterrent system I would like to put in place by next year: an "ant moat." Ants notoriously do not like water, nor do horses ridden by knights bent on ransacking a castle. Some hummingbird feeders come with a built-in ant moat, or you can inexpensively buy or make one. It is comprised of a small cup placed between the feeder and the mount. Once attached, it is filled with water, and ants, when they encounter it, have no desire to continue their nectar journey.

I can happily report the hummingbirds are enjoying the lion's share of nectar at my feeder these days. They're visiting the sugary filling station, and the remaining flowers in the yard, for the finite amount of time they have left before heading south to the warmth of a Central American sun.

Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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