There are few garden delights more delightful than spotting hummingbirds flitting about your flowers — their tiny size combined with their mighty activity is a sight to behold. So it’s no wonder that many gardeners want to do their part by attracting these little charmers with sugar water feeders.
If you’ve already read our post on hummingbird feeder basics, this is some next-level information for you to determine what kind of feeder you need, how to maintain it, how to spot spoiled nectar — and of course, a recipe for sugar water!
Hummingbird Feeder Types
Most gardeners are familiar with the standard inverted bottle type (vacuum) feeder, but there are actually two basic styles of hummingbird feeders, each with their unique benefits.
- Vacuum Feeder: These look like inverted bottles, and they work by using the trapped air to create a pressure vacuum inside the bottle. Sugar water is released only when a hummingbird’s bill or tongue probe the port. While vacuum feeders are easier to clean than saucer feeders, they have a tendency to leak fluid.
- Saucer Feeder: Saucer feeders are bowl-shaped reservoirs with individual feeding ports, and one advantage they have is that they are very unlikely to leak sugar water (thereby attracting ants and bees). The disadvantage to many saucer feeders is that they can be difficult to properly clean.
Tip: Whichever feeder you get, be sure it’s one that comes apart to clean easily — if your feeder is not easily cleaned, human nature says you won’t clean it very often. Also, be sure to get a feeder that has a bee guard to prevent bees from accessing the sugar water.
Signs of Bad Hummingbird Nectar
How will you know when to change the water in your hummingbird feeder?
Setting a weekly schedule to clean and add new homemade nectar to your feeders will keep your hummingbirds healthy and happy. Keep in mind though that weather is a big factor in how long your nectar will be good for, the higher the temperature the more frequently you should be changing your sugar water. Higher temperatures can ferment you nectar faster and require that you refresh your nectar more than once a week.
What could happen if you leave sugar water in your feeder too long?
Sugar water can become contaminated by bacteria, mold, fungus, and even dead bugs which can harm and possibly kill a hummingbird. As the nectar spoils, and all nectar spoils, it can be harder to digest and less nutritious for the hummingbirds.
However, if you happen to let the feeder go longer here are visual cues that your nectar needs to be changed.
- Cloudy Sugar Water: Good nectar should be clear as it degrades it will get cloudy or milky looking, you may also start to see black or white floating specks or stringy substances.
- Growth: Look for fungus or mold growth, which can coat the inside of the feeding reservoir or around the feeding ports.
- Floating or Dead Insects: In the feeder and around the feeding port you may see dead insects. These are not insects that hummingbirds should be feeding on.
- Strong or Strange Odor: As the nectar spoils it can smell sour, overly sweet, or moldy.
- Sticky Residue: Crystallized residue around the feeding ports can form as the nectar ferments, particularly on upside down feeders.
- Hummingbirds Stop Feeding: Most hummingbirds will avoid spoiled nectar unless there is no other food source and they are in dire need of food.
Tip: Provide other food sources for your hummingbirds. Plant hummingbird friendly flowers and plants that they can also feed on. Hummingbirds eat insects; attract good bugs that are beneficial to both your garden and your neighborhood hummingbirds.
Sugar Water Recipe & Tips
1 cup of white cane sugar
3-4 cups of spring water (tap water is acceptable if spring water cannotbe used)
Combine the sugar and water together in a saucepan and dissolve over low heat while stirring. Let mixture cool before adding to your feeder. Keep extra sugar water in a container in the refrigerator for up to one week, then discard.
- Do not use red food coloring!
- Use only white cane sugar — no other sugars (brown, molasses, powdered, turbinado, etc.) is acceptable.
- The only other acceptable substitute for white cane sugar is beet sugar.
- If you notice bees visiting your hummingbird feeder, adjust the mixture to include 5 cups of water rather than the 3-4 cups in the recipe. (And add that bee guard we talked about above!).
- If you notice your hummers aren’t using all of the sugar water in between filling them up, don’t fill them up all the way next time. This avoids wasting the sugar water or, worse, having it spoil.
- Change the water every four or five days, but be prepared to increase that to every other day when temps are above 90°.
- Never “top off” the sugar water — you must clean out the feeder before you refill it.
Why Should I Discourage Bees from Drinking the Sugar Water
Bees of all kinds can be attracted to your hummingbird feeder, and although we want our valuable bees to also have food sources, hummingbird feeders should not be considered a “one stop pollinator feeder.” Why? In large part, to protect the hummingbirds themselves. Too many other creatures visiting the feeder can chase the hummingbirds away or, worse, put them at risk for bee stings.
This is the logic behind the bee guard on hummingbird feeders — while the hummers’ long tongues can easily reach beyond the guard to access the sugar water, bees and wasps cannot.