Is Sugar Water Good for Hummingbirds? Everything You Need To Know!

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I love seeing hummingbirds in my yard. I plant flowers that attract them and try to keep them happy and healthy when they visit. As a big fan of hummingbirds, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into the good and bad ways to attract hummingbirds.

If you also love hummingbirds, you’ve probably considered putting sugar water — also known as homemade hummingbird nectar — out for them. Or, perhaps you have been doing so for years!

Wherever you fall on the spectrum, it’s always important to ask:  “Am I harming the animals I want to see more of?” This question should be asked about any animals we seek to attract, but especially fragile, little hummingbirds. 

So, here’s an important question: is sugar water good for hummingbirds?

Good news: the short answer is that yes, sugar water is good for them! But it is a little more complicated than just a simple “yes.”

There are important considerations to keep in mind when supplying sugar water to your hummingbirds, including how to make it, what NOT to use, how to keep the sugar water clean, and where you should place your feeders. 

Do Hummingbirds Need Sugar Water? 

Hummingbirds need sugar. which is an essential part of their diet, along with small insects. While they don’t necessarily need sugar water from a feeder to survive, it can certainly help!

Clean sugar water, provided via a feeder, allows them to get the sugar they need faster while expending less energy than when going from flower to flower. 

Sugar water is also helpful to recover from and prepare for long migrations.

Sugar Water or Flower Nectar: Which Do Hummingbirds Prefer?

Natural, nectar-producing plants are the best foods for hummingbirds. However, there is little evidence to say which method hummingbirds prefer. 

With that said, hummingbirds are not particularly picky when it comes to their food. They don’t really seem to differentiate between sugar water and natural nectar. If it’s sugary, they’ll eat it!

How to Safely Provide Hummingbirds with Sugar Water

Is Sugar Water Good for Hummingbirds

If you want to provide sugar water to hummingbirds, you must do so safely!  Feeding hummingbirds is a big responsibility, as feeders are susceptible to bacteria and mold growth. You absolutely must keep the feeder clean

How to Clean Your Hummingbird Feeder

During the hot summer months, you will need to wash the feeder and add new sugar water every two to three days.

In cooler seasons, you may be able to get away with a few extra days but always watch for signs of bacteria growth, including cloudiness, mold, dead bugs, or floaters. 

To clean your feeder, use a washing bucket and a rinsing bucket outside. A tiny bit of mild detergent–maybe a drop or two–is a good option. Add no more than two drops of bleach. I sometimes add a quarter cup of vinegar instead. (Don’t combine bleach and vinegar!

In the cleaning bucket, dunk all of the components of the feeder and scrub the whole thing with your feeder cleaning brushes. Rinse in your rinse bucket, and there you go! 

Now you can refill your feeders with fresh sugar water. 

Do You Just Add Sugar to the Water to Create Hummingbird Nectar?

One of the great things about sugar water is that you can make it at home with the ingredients you already have.

You simply need to mix one part of table sugar into four parts of water. Tap water is fine! Stir it together until the sugar dissolves, and then refill your freshly cleaned feeder. 

Note: table sugar most closely resembles the natural nectar that flowers produce, so it’s best to stick with that. And while honey is safe in moderation for human consumption, it creates an environment that allows bacteria to grow faster. 

You should also avoid brown sugar, unrefined sugar, agave syrup, raw sugars, and artificial sweeteners. Basically, stick to refined, white cane sugar that’s been processed! 

Do You Need to Boil the Water?

If you keep the mixture for later, then boiling the water is necessary. 

If you are putting 100% of the sugar water into a feeder, you don’t need to boil it first. However, if you are keeping some of the solution back to use in a few days, you should boil it before adding it to the feeder. 

Make sure that you’re using boiling water that’s been heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.  Hot water won’t necessarily kill potential bacteria or pathogens.

Also, be sure to store it in the refrigerator instead of outside or on the counter. 

Is Red Dye Dangerous for Hummingbirds?

Because hummingbirds are attracted to bright colors, people have been coloring their sugar water with red food coloring for ages. You may even find red nectar solutions available online or in your local lawn and garden store. 

I used to think that if I wanted to hang hummingbird feeders, I would need to purchase that red food gel to make it work.

Many birders and hummingbird experts have expressed concerns about the risks of red dyes in hummingbird food. While there aren’t concrete studies to confirm that red dye is dangerous, there are definitely a lot of valid concerns. 

But regardless, red dye isn’t necessary!  Most feeders are already red or have red parts, to do the work of attracting hummingbirds.

Why take the risk of providing an unsafe food source to hummingbirds when you can make your own and know exactly what you are providing to your avian visitors? 

What Are the Best Ways to Attract Hummingbirds?

Sugar water is great for hummingbirds! So is the natural nectar that they consume from blooming flowers.

If you’re like me and want to attract hummingbirds to your yard, the best way is to provide them with flowers that have colorful, tubular blooms–and lots of nectar!

The next best thing is to add sugar water to hummingbird feeders that are placed far enough apart that male hummingbirds don’t get defensive. 

I hope you have fun bringing hummingbirds into your yard through flowers and feeders alike. There is nothing like spotting a tiny little hummingbird going about its day, and providing sugar water is a great way to ensure that you have that experience more often! 

Sources

C, J. (2020). “Hummingbird Food Made the Right Way.” Retrieved 2022

Ecosystem Gardener. (2022). “Is Sugar Bad for Hummingbirds?” Retrieved 2022

C, J. (2020). “Hummingbird Migration Flyways are Well Traveled Paths.” Retrieved 2022 

National Audubon Society. (2017). “Hummingbird Feeding FAQs.” Retrieved 2022

C, J. (2020). “Cleaning Hummingbird Feeders the Right Way and Often.” Retrieved 2022

Yetman, D. (2020). “Why You Should Not Mix Bleach and Vinegar While Cleaning.” Retrieved 2022 

Zickefoose, J. (2022). “Red Food Coloring and Hummingbirds.” Retrieved 2022

Waddington, E. (2022). “How to Hang a Hummingbird Feeder: 5 Specific Ideas.” Retrieved 2022

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Liz Ranfeld

Liz Boltz Ranfeld is an independent educator and writer from Indiana. She lives on the edge of the woods with her husband, 2 kids, dogs, chickens, and hedgehog. One of the best things of living in rural Indiana is spotting hawks, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other wild creatures. She enjoys hiking, canoeing, and gardening, and one of her personal heroes is the conservationist and birdwatcher Rosalie Barrow Edge, who paved the way for the protection of birds around the globe.