Diggin' In: Hummingbirds and honeysuckle a handsome pairing

June 15, 2015

When gardening goes skyward, hummingbirds take notice, especially if it’s native coral honeysuckle.

"This beautiful climbing vine is visited often by hummingbirds and long-tongued insects," says Helen Hamilton of the plant known scientifically as Lonicera sempervirens. Hamilton, a Williamsburg, Va., resident, is co-author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain."

In the wild, coral honeysuckle twines and climbs on other vegetation, or sometimes trails along the ground.

"In the home garden, it looks wonderful on a fence, trellis or mailbox," says Hamilton.

Honeysuckle is also beneficial to butterflies because Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves, which caterpillars eat. During winter, some leaves stay, making those tangled remains a comfy shelter for small wintering birds, according to Hamilton.

Coral honeysuckle is also known as trumpet honeysuckle for the whorled clusters of red, tubular blooms at the ends of stems. Yellow stamens and pistils emerge at the ends of the flowers. Flowers normally appear in March and bloom on and off until October or November. Pruning for control and shape is best done after the first flush of flowers. Green fruits mature into lipstick-red berries that provide winter food for many birds, Hamilton adds.

The native perennial grows all over the eastern United States and Canada, and likes full sun in soil with average to moist drainage. Its root system runs deep, sending runners to form more colonies.

A native of eastern Asia, invasive Japanese Honeysuckle, or Lonicera japonica, is a summer show of fragrant tubular flowers with shiny black berries August to October, according to Hamilton. The plant grows more than 80 feet with stems that trail and climb over other vegetation.

Introduced into North America in 1806 in Long Island, N.Y., Japanese honeysuckle has been planted widely throughout the United States as an ornamental plant, for erosion control, and for wildlife forage and cover. Unfortunately, this alien vine is now on all lists as a highly invasive plant.

Ruby-throated hummingbird:If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird, you know what an amazing creature they are, especially since they are no more than four inches long and weigh less than an ounce.

"Flying forward, backward, and even upside down, the wings beat 78 times each second during regular flight and much more than that during a display dive," says Hamilton.

Their heartbeat is fast – more than 600 beats per minute — so they need a lot of food to sustain that metabolism. Eating half their body weight each day, they feed five to eight times per hour, up to a minute at each feeding, using their long, grooved tongues to lap up nectar, according to Hamilton.

"Their major competitors for food are not other birds, but long-tongued insects," she says.

"Hummingbirds feed also on insects, capturing them with the fringes on the edges of their tongues."

Ruby-throats look for early-blooming flowers such as columbines, trumpet honeysuckle and azaleas. In summer, they like funnel-shaped native plants such as wild bergamot, jewelweed and bergamot.

"Hummingbirds, however, visit flowers of all colors, including trees and shrubs," Hamilton says.

Hummingbirds also like nectar-filled feeders in yards. Adrienne Frank, a Virginia Master Naturalist with the Historic Rivers Chapter in Williamsburg (, says feeders should be filled with white sugar only, not brown sugar or honey, one part sugar to four parts boiling water, cooled — and no red coloring. It’s important to keep the feeders clean; Frank recommends using a vinegar solution or bleach twice a week to clean the feeders, because black mold harms the birds.

Gardeners who want hummingbirds in their yards need to avoid using pesticides to kill protein-rich insects because the process eliminates that food source for the birds, and hummers could die from feeding on flowers that have been sprayed, according to Hamilton.

During migration, male and female hummingbirds fly separately. Males court females to breed and construct a nest of moss, lichens and spider webs and lined with down from thistles or dandelions; the nest is about the size of a quarter and typically six feet off the ground on the horizontal limb of a tree, according to Hamilton. Males mate with several females; females lay two eggs and raise the offspring alone.

There are 330 species of hummers in North and South America. Brian Taber of the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory says there are 19 species of hummingbirds in North America, with 15 of those in the East. Seven species visit Virginia, but only the ruby-throated hummingbird breeds here, according to Taber. They typically begin the 600-mile trip back to the Gulf of Mexico around Sept. 20.



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