Thom Smith: Keep feeding those hungry hummingbirds

Q: I have two questions: We still have hummingbirds coming to our sugar water feeder and wonder when we should stop feeding? I have been told it will delay their departure and keep them longer than they should stay here. The other may not be among your areas of expertise, but I will try. Do you know what will kill the white or gray mildew that has covered a clump of bee balm?

— Reader in Manchester, Vt.

A: You have been given bad advice; hummingbirds will leave when it is time to leave. The only ones that may linger behind are injured individuals or seniors too old to make the trip. Male hummers abandon their female partners after family duties are over, with some beginning to migrate south by late July into August, with the peak for the species is late August through as late as mid-September. Those hummers we see in mid to late September are our Canadian neighbors. I suggest keeping feeders stocked into early October just in case late migrants pass by, even though many flowers are still abundant south of us. Two of the late summer, early autumn wildflowers that still offer an abundance of nectar here, and visited often by migrating hummingbirds, is the yellow and the orange jewelweeds sometimes called touch-me-nots. We sometimes give these flowers that touch-me-not name because if one touches a fully ripe seed pod it springs open with force ejecting its seeds and startling the "toucher."

For such small birds, the distance they fly is a feat especially when they leave land to cross the Gulf of Mexico solo and non-stop. At most they travel about 525 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, and then up to another 1,000 miles into Central America where most spend the winter. To get to the Gulf those that nest in Canada must also fly from there to the Gulf Coast, a distance of another 1,000 miles — less from The Berkshires and southern Vermont. (Source:

In answer to your powdery mildew question: Bee balm thrive in sunny locations with good air flow, meaning do not crowd. While there are preparations on the market for powdery mildew, one I would trust if applied cautiously after reading instructions thoroughly is Neem, a product labeled for powdery mildew. Another is a homemade spray easily made by mixing one tablespoon of baking soda to a gallon of water with a teaspoon of light horticulture oil (garden supply). Both should be applied early, when first signs of infection is noticed. I would, however, apply now, perhaps stopping further spread. I know this because we had the problem in our garden and it worked. Some years ago I theorized that by planting bee bale in full sun and not too close to each other, light and air would reach more of the plants reducing the risk of disease spread. It also worked, but now I must start over by moving and thinning my plants as the remaining bee balm are crowded together in a less sunny location. In garden catalogs I recall seeing mildew resistant varieties, although have not made any purchase yet.

Questions and comments: Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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