Trumpet Vine, Hummingbirds and Ants

Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)– A rambunctious, beautiful, native flowering vine, that is aggressive and can take over quickly! It grows wild in my yard. The underground root system is well established and pops up under every shrub and next to every tree we have. I am constantly battling it. When the plumber put in a 12-foot-tall white vent pipe for my new, costly septic system, I immediately painted it green to blend in, put chicken wire on it, and planted coral vine at the base. Besides the coral vine, trumpet creeper grew, and this time I said, “Why not! If it grows quickly, perhaps it will cover and hide the pipe, and hummingbirds are supposed to love the flowers, and I love hummers, so win-win.” Not so fast!

Finally, in its third year, we have a consistent trumpet vine bloom, but the hummingbirds do not frequent it! @#$%^&* Why not? I sit in my little spy position, waiting to get a picture of a hummer frequenting a flower, which never happens. They visit other flowers. I don’t spray poisons. The answer came in a recent post in Terry Johnson’s Backyardwildlifeconnection blog. It seems hummingbirds can smell the trail of insects that can hurt them, including the formic acid of ants!

Sure enough, there are relatively large ants all over my trumpet creeper. iNaturalist identifies them as Pale Field Ants Formica pallidefulva. I tried to find out more about these critters. A website sells them for people with ant farms because they are “entertaining to watch.” These ants forage for both sugars and live prey.
“When they hunt, they grab their prey’s legs and stretch it out. Then some workers spit formic acid all over them.” – Canada Ant Colony

Charming little critters! I doubt these ants have the herculean strength they would need to subdue a hummingbird, but a bite is a bite. The hummers are wise to stay away.

So, what to do? These ants’ hives are entirely underground, and I’ve not been bitten. I don’t particularly want to kill them; they do eat aphids. On the internet, I found a natural ant repellent that is supposed to be safe around birds, pets, and kids. The active ingredient is cinnamon oil. I may have to spray the trumpet creeper with a soap solution to remove the formic acid still present since it is only partially soluble in water. Maybe our fourth year with trumpet creeper will be the charm!

If you are not a subscriber to Terry Johnson’s Backyardwildlifeconnection I highly recommend it. Terry is a retired DNR wildlife biologist who specialized in endangered wildlife and is the current Executive Director of The Environmental Resource Network (TERN). He will keep you up to date on all things related to the special creatures of Georgia.

Got Ants on Your Feeders? & Other Hummingbird Info

It’s so easy to keep ants off your hummingbird feeders. I often hear people say they can’t feed the hummingbirds because the ants take
over the feeder. The solution is simple. Use an ant moat! An ant moat is a very small water barrier the ant has to cross before it gets to the
feeder. The ants will not swim the distance of ½ inch to get to the sugar water.

Some ant moats are separate from the feeder. (Imagine a spray paint can lid turned upside down with a hook on the inside and the outside.)
Fill the moat with water and place the moat between the hummingbird feeder and the hook where you usually hang the feeder.

My favorite feeder has the ant moat built in. This feeder is called the HummZinger and is available at the local bird stores.* This is easiest of all the feeders to clean and does not have any yellow color on it. (Yellow is supposed to attract bees and wasps.) I use a sun/rain shade to protect the feeder from rain.

Prepare for the Hummingbirds

  • If you don’t leave feeders out all year, put them out by mid-March. Expect to see the first hummingbird anytime between mid-March and the first week in April.
  • Hummingbirds are very territorial and one bird will defend a feeder. If you want to see more birds in
    your garden, place several feeders together.
  • In early spring before your garden has flowers blooming, buy a basket of colorful annuals to attract the
    birds. Plant your garden to provide blooms as early as possible and lasting until frost.
  • Red food coloring is not required to attract the birds.
  • Yellow attracts wasps and bees. Use red nail polish to cover any yellow on existing feeders.
    Keep the feeders clean and change the sugar-water mixture every third day when weather is hot.
  • Hummingbirds are important pollinators. Avoid pesticides!
  • Use a mister or dripper to provide a water source for hummingbird baths.
  • My favorite hummingbird flowers: columbine, red and blue salvia, impatiens, coral honeysuckle,
    butterfly bush, lantana, petunias, trumpet vine and lobelia.
  • My favorite bird store is “Strictly for the Birds” in Lawrenceville.