Is Sugar Bad for Hummingbirds?

Hummingbirds in the Wildlife Garden

We’ve talked about hummingbird feeders before in discussing how long to leave your feeders up during the fall migration, but this new question came from Stacey through the new Ask Carole feature at Ecosystem Gardening:

Carole, is it really okay to feed hummingbirds sugar water? I avoid refined sugar like the plague, so I’m wondering if it’s safe for those tiny bodies. I prefer to plant flowers they like, even if it means a few non-natives (Maltese cross, for example).

Am I being too much of a purist?

What a great question! Especially at this time of the year when the Hummingbirds are flitting all over my garden.

Here’s some rules of thumb when filling your hummingbird feeders:

  • DO NOT use that red-dyed hummingbird “food” you can get in the supermarket or garden store. It is thought to cause harm to both humans and hummingbirds and it’s just not worth risking that. Besides, it makes no difference in attracting hummingbirds and it’s expensive.
  • DO NOT use honey to make nectar for hummingbirds. Honey ferments and causes a deadly bacterium in hummingbirds.
  • Table sugar most closely resembles the nectar found in flowers. This is the feeding method of choice by every hummingbird researcher I know.
  • It is very important to clean your feeders out frequently in the summer heat. The nectar can spoil in the heat and cause illness for the hummingbirds. Aim for every other day.

To make nectar for hummingbirds, mix table sugar with water in a 4 to 1 ratio. For example, 1 cup water to 1/4 cup sugar, or 4 cups water to 1 cup sugar.

You can either prepare this on your stove top by boiling the water until the sugar is dissolved. Or you can prepare it at room temperature by stirring the sugar into the water until it is completely dissolved.

Hummingbird feeding in the wildlife gardenWhen choosing a feeder, you want one that is red, is easily cleaned, has built-in ant protection, and is easy for hummingbirds to use. I prefer the Aspects Hummzinger feeder pictured here. It’s easy to use and the hummingbirds love it.

There is also a smaller feeder, the Aspects mini Hummzinger Hummingbird feeder which is great at the times of year when the hummingbirds are not migrating, but nesting in your garden.

You may want to read Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds, by Sheri Williamson. While there are several other Hummingbird garden books, Sheri Williamson’s is the most accurate. She is also the author of A Field Guide to the Hummingbirds of North America, the essential reference for identifying hummingbirds.

Also, consider adding some of these native plants to your wildlife garden:

What are you doing for hummingbirds in your garden?

Check out my new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week, teaching you to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your garden.

© 2010 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    Honestly, I am way too lazy to put out hummingbird feeders and change them regularly. Knowing this about myself, I plant hummingbird plants, because it’s just easier and I won’t feel guilty that I am poisoning the wee birds when I suddenly realize it’s been six weeks since I cleaned the feeder.

    This year, the Agastache aurantiaca–a hyssop native to Arizona and Mexico–has been the absolutely favorite of the hummingbirds. Not quite native in my range, but at least it’s from the same continent, and man, the hummingbirds luuuuv it.

  2. says

    Oh, good! Seems like the answer to most “is what you’re doing really ok?” questions is “NO!” Nice to have the answer be “sure, you’re doing it right!” for once.

  3. Bob says

    I recently put up a hummingbird feeder in my backyard. I live in Annapolis MD and wasn’t sure I’d attract any. I was a bit concerned that refined sugar may be bad for them but I believe it is okay (1:4 ratio). I notice a ruby-throated hummingbird generally sits on a branch above the feeder and chases away almost all other commers save one. I assume it must be a male and is trying to ingratiate itself witha female. They are thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable to watch.
    I will be away for ten days and hope the mixture does not go bad (bacteria growth, etc.). I am reluctant to not leave the feeder filled but do not change the water more than once a week. I’m sure that that is probably not often enough, but I do disassemble the feeder entirely and clean it well before refilling.

    • Carole Brown says

      Bob, females can be just as aggressive as males in guarding “their” nectar source. It’s pretty funny for such a tiny bird to have such a huge attitude. At this time of year when the hummingbirds begin to move south you’ll probably have days when the battle for your feeder is fierce. It’s so much fun to watch.

  4. Dee says

    I put the hummingbird feeder out, but still no himmingbirds. After researching their migration & other habits, I planted a Trumpet Vine, & do to the fact I’m in a small space, the only place I could put it, was on the side of the shed. I bought a trellis which is going to be replaced with a larger more sturdy cedar trellis this year. The vine has grown quickly & is now growing up & onto the roof of the shed. I learned that hummingbirds frequently travel outside of their zone to look for new food sources, & they fly about the height of a house. I’m hoping they will see the beautiful flowers on the vine & come to visit my garden.
    There are very few hummngbirds in my county, as it is so built up, it’s just sad. There are hummingbirds in the neghboring county which still has some rural areas but they’re disappearing fast.
    I hope this year is the year! Please visit my butterfly gardening page at!/MyButterflyGarden

  5. Van says

    Hello, I am very concerned after having had my feeder up this summer like I’ve done each year. First, thankyou for the tip about not using red dye. I started using table sugar right away after reading that. But my hummingbirds are downright violent with each other over the feeder. They are constantly, and I mean constantly, fighting, divebombing and chasing each other. I get so tired of all the violence I just take the feeder down for a while but it doesn’t really help. But more concern is for hummingbirds learning to rely and depend on feeders as a source of food. My instincts tell me that feeders will inhibit timely migration in the winter causing them harm. The hummingbirds here won’t leave until my feeder is taken down. I’m thinking it might be better to leave hummingbirds to feed off flowers which one can plant. What do you think?

    • says

      I notice that the original question — is sugar bad for hummingbirds, especially when it can be so harmful to humans — is not directly answered by Carol. Nor is it addressed by other commentators until this one.

      I have witnessed the kamakaze behavior of hummingbirds at the sugar-feeder when I first tried it myself. It was horrifying! I took it down and put plain water instead. The birds calmed down and used it all summer.

      It’s such a no-brainer to me that refined sugar would adversely affect these tiny birds, I can hardly believe what I’m reading. All sites state sugar as “great!” for hummingbirds. I’m not buying it for a minute, relying on my own intelligence and common senses. I am not willing to harm them for my pleasure. I love that people are planting flowers for them instead.

      • Phyllis says

        I’ve long resisted using hummer feeders even though I’m jealous of people bragging about all the hummers they attract. I consider sugar water as harmful as giving soda to children, just pure junk. I have planted hummer plants instead. My little Anna hummer just adores the Salvia Californica (Chuparosa) and chases any intruders away from it. She also loves the Salvia Greggi and the Agastachi and the Penstemons when availabla. I wish people in these blogs would stop encouraging the use of table sugar nectars.

      • Deanna Bialczak says

        I agree with you, People focus too much on giving them sugar water, and some add red food color that will hurt them. The last 2 summers I’ve had hummingbirds visit my yard. I don’t have feeders for them, only plants. Bugs in the plants provide them with the protein they need. They love native Cardinal flower, and this year I’m adding native blue sage and native Honeysuckle Vine.

  6. says

    Of course sugar is bad for hummingbirds. It is POISON for people and animals. Hummingbird feeders should be trashed. Never use feeders. Plant helpful plants instead.

  7. John drought says

    My ranch house is 30 miles north of San Antonio. It’s hot here in summer with few flowering plants. So I feed my hummers.
    I gave up red dye years ago which had no effect on their attraction to my feeder. Quit the dye.
    It is also dry here in summers. I have noticed hummers flying into my lawn sprinklers for a drink. That gave me the idea to try a feeder with only water, no sugar. Based on my sprinkler observations I was not too surprised that they drank the plain water at about the same rate as the sugared water.
    Anyone else tried this?

    • says

      Hello John,
      Bless your heart for not only doing this experiment (see my similar one several comments above) but sharing it here.
      Peg, and all earth-connected humans, thank you for your sanity and true
      love for hummingbirds and for all of us.
      Thanks, too, for all the wonderful hummingbird-attracting plant names.

      I lives in the high desert of southern California and just planted another desert willow,
      whose lovely pink-white blossoms provide fragrance, color and nourishment for the birds eight months out of the year!
      Your enthusiastic comments inspire me to spread the word in my community, perfect timing.
      Much appreciation for your lively, beatufiul and important web-site, Carole.

  8. mark says

    I found another site southeastern arizona bird observatory which says a lower water to sugar ratio is better

    Q: What solution should I use to fill my feeder?
    A: We recommend…..Don’t be tempted to increase the sugar beyond a 3:1 ratio. Hummingbirds get much of their water from nectar, and very strong solutions may cause dehydration and kidney damage if other sources of water are not available. Also, every acre of sugar beets or sugar cane is one less acre of natural habitat, so conserving sugar helps to conserve habitat for hummingbirds and other wildlife.

  9. Sally McGuire says

    We have several buckeye trees (Aesculus pavia) mostly planted by squirrels, which bloom very early spring, just as the migration comes thru this area of South Carolina. The hummers seem to remember where they are and swarm the trees! Later in the season lots of salvia, hyssop, impatiens and even zinnias keep the beauties humming around our neck of the woods. I still put a few feeders up using organic cane sugar in “flying saucer” type feeders which can be thoroughly cleaned.


  1. […] really quite easy to make your own nectar for your hummingbird feeders. Simply add one cup of sugar to four cups of water and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Let it […]

  2. […] 128. Is Sugar Bad for Hummingbirds? We’ve talked about hummingbird feeders before in discussing how long to leave your feeders up during the fall migration, but this new question came in: “is it really okay to feed hummingbirds sugar water? I avoid refined sugar like the plague, so I’m wondering so I’m wondering if it’s safe for those tiny bodies? ~Carole Sevilla Brown […]

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