How to Make Hummingbird Food Safely and Responsibly

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
hummingbird feeding
A hummingbird sips from a backyard feeder, happy for a little extra sustenance. Ami Parikh/Shutterstock
Key Takeaways
  • To make hummingbird food, mix one part refined white sugar with four parts water. Boil and cool the solution before filling the feeder.
  • Clean the feeder every three to five days with a nontoxic cleaner like weak vinegar to prevent harmful bacteria and fungi growth.
  • Avoid using red food coloring, honey, brown sugar or artificial sweeteners, as they can harm the birds.

A hummingbird feeder can be a thrilling addition to any summertime yard. Hummingbirds, those vibrant, acrobatic little fliers, evolved to eat a lot of natural nectar from flowers to fuel their insanely high metabolism. Flowers should provide their primary food source, but you can supplement their caloric needs by feeding hummingbirds with a well-placed sugar water feeder.

Here's how to keep a hummingbird feeder that's both entertaining for you and good for the hummers.



Keep Your Hummingbird Feeder Clean

Feeders are a really nice gesture for your local hummingbirds — these vessels filled with sugar water can help them get through the times of year when there aren't as many flowers around. However, since feeders are a huge draw for these tiny birds, it's extremely important to keep them clean and safe.

Hummingbirds eat by lapping up liquid food at lightning speed using flexible tongues that are so long they retract in a coil that rests in their skulls around their eyes. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red because they associate red flowers with higher-nutrient nectar. Many sugar water feeders have red plastic pieces for the hummers to sip from, but this isn't a requirement and, as we will see, red food coloring, long thought to attract hummingbirds, is a definite no-no.


Unfortunately, hummingbird feeders are great places for bacteria and fungi to grow. Of course, microbial communities are everywhere — sugar water hummingbird feeders attract the same kinds of bacteria that you'd find in flowers, in addition to a few more varieties. A 2019 study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found the microbial communities in sugar water included very few species that could cause disease in hummingbirds.

But a small fraction of them have been associated with a disease called candidiasis, a deadly fungal infection that causes a hummingbird's tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to eat.

To prevent the possibility of spreading this disease through your hummingbird feeders, it's necessary to clean your feeders regularly with a nontoxic cleaning product like weak vinegar, away from areas where human food is prepared. Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every three to five days, and more frequently in hot summer weather. Most feeders can be completely disassembled so that they can be thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Avoid using any kind of soap or detergent, as these can leave a harmful residue.

hummingbird feeding
It's a myth that hummingbirds are chiefly attracted to red flowers and therefore flock to red liquid in a feeder. They will just as happily find the purple and blue flowers in your garden.
Gregory Johnston/Shutterstock


How to Make Hummingbird Food

Hummingbird feeders should contain only this homemade hummingbird food recipe: a mixture of four parts water to one part refined white sugar. The water should be boiled and cooled before adding it to the hummingbird feeder. Regular tap water, well water or bottled spring water are all perfectly fine to use.


What Not to Use in Your Hummingbird Feeder

Although hummingbird feeders are completely safe and even helpful for the birds, there are many pieces of advice floating around out there that you simply should not follow. Here are some pointers as to what you should not do with your hummingbird feeder:

  • Don't add red food coloring or dye of any kind to your homemade hummingbird nectar recipe — it's not necessary to attract hummingbirds and the chemicals in the dye are not good for the birds.
  • Don't use distilled water, as it is stripped of natural minerals, and don't use water processed through a water softener, as water softeners can add certain salts and minerals that are not good for the birds.
  • Don't spend your money on commercial hummingbird nectar. Many of these concoctions contain preservatives, additives and dyes that can harm hummingbirds. Using your own hummingbird nectar recipe means there is no reason to buy commercial hummingbird nectars.
  • Don't add anything to the water in your homemade nectar, except dissolved granulated white sugar. Don't add honey, brown sugar, molasses or any sort of artificial sweetener. When mixed with water, honey and molasses create a great breeding ground for potentially fatal bacteria and mold to grow. Again, the best hummingbird nectar recipe is one part granulated white sugar mixed with four parts clean water.

Always place your clean hummingbird feeders in a shady spot, preferably in front of a window so you can sit back and enjoy the show while feeding hummingbirds safely!


Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use alternative sweeteners like honey or brown sugar for making hummingbird food?
No, you should only use granulated white sugar. Alternative sweeteners like honey, brown sugar or artificial sweeteners can promote the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, which can be fatal to hummingbirds.
How often should I change the hummingbird food in the feeder?
You should change the hummingbird food every three to five days, and more frequently in hot weather, to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi. Regular cleaning of the feeder is also necessary to keep it safe for the birds.