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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

Rich Landers: Hummers rather flee than fight yellow jackets

A few expert birders are swarming – with stingers bared – after reading my outdoors column about yellow jackets last week and its reference to hummingbirds.

They say hummers flee from wasps and have little interest in kicking their venomous butts, no matter how irritating they can be.

The column quoted fly fishing guide G.L. Britton, who had said 2013 was as bad a year for yellow jackets as he could remember in his career.

“I’d seen pics of hummingbirds tongue-lassoing wasps ahead of the stingers and slicing off the danger,” he said.

No way, a few birders replied.

“What I saw Rich was a picture on a calendar that my neighbor showed me,” Britton explained when I contacted him for clarification. “Just a generic nature calendar. The pic had a hummer facing the camera with its tongue in the process of looping around the rear of the yellow jacket’s abdomen. The caption said something about adult hummingbirds also eating insects, and even bees.”

But the still photo didn’t actually show the hummer tongue-tying a wasp, so the photo wasn’t proof. Britton agreed that “around our feeders, our hummers won’t feed if there are many yellow jackets.”

Most YouTube videos of hummingbird-yellow jacket confrontations at feeders show the birds backing off the feeder when the wasps challenge them for the sweets.

Britton also said he had a rufous hummer take a wasp three feet from his face while fishing. Even that is unlikely, the birders say, noting that at the speeds those two species would be darting around in a state of agitation, judging what actually happened would be difficult.

For the birding community’s perspective, I’ll defer to Jim Acton, a Spokane Audubon member who’s been doing bird surveys for more than half a century.

“Your recent article on yellow-jackets was interesting; however, you have been BAMBOOZLED when you entered into the area of hummingbirds,” he wrote in a neat letter produced from a typewriter.

“Hummingbird tongues are long, tubular and the size of a needle. They are also very flexible; however, their main reason to exist is to lick nectar from within tubular flowers and perhaps some small insects that might also be within.

“What they are not going to be doing is lassoing wasps, hornets, jackets and the like and slicing off the insect’s stinger. Hummingbirds are not known to have the strength of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“Besides – wasps, hornets and jackets are exoskeleton equipped. No hummingbird tongue is going to break through that defense unless it brings along a chain saw to do the job.

“As for the wasp being swallowed by a hummer, I would doubt that, too. I think their throat size would limit that effort.

“However, maybe it was not a wasp that your individual saw. Hummingbirds do hawk for insects, but they are of the soft-bodied type like gnats, small flies and spiders.

“As one who has provided habitat for hummingbirds for over 60 years, I can tell you that they do NOT tolerate any bee, wasp, jacket or hornet near them.

“They will back off if any of those insects comes close even if they are at a water feeder.”

With a few tail feathers missing, I’ll fly away from this topic and leave it at that.

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