It’s NOT a good idea to make hummingbird food with brown sugar.
The same reasons that brown sugar is tastier and more nutritious in, for instance, an oatmeal cookie make it less appealing and even potentially dangerous when it is dissolved in water and put in a hummingbird feeder.
Should You Make Hummingbird Food with Brown Sugar?
Brown sugar is brown because it contains molasses. Molasses is a minimally processed cane syrup. It can be pressed from sugar cane or from a plant called sorghum.
In the 1800s, sugar companies added molasses to white sugar to make brown sugar because it was cheaper.
Now it’s preferred for some recipes because it makes baked goods moister and helps them last longer.
But making cookies moister isn’t all that brown sugar can do. It contains iron that encourages the growth of bacteria.
When you use brown sugar to make cookies, chances are that they aren’t going to be around long enough to grow any bacteria.
But when you add brown sugar to water and let it stand in a hummingbird feeder, it becomes rocket fuel for the yeasts that turn sugar into alcohol.
If you were to drink the fermented sugar water inside your hummingbird feeder, you wouldn’t get tipsy.
But you are tremendously larger than a hummingbird.
Hummingbirds can and do get drunk by taking long sips of “nectar” made with brown sugar.
They lose their way of getting back to their perches. They forget the way to flowers.
And because a hummingbird has an enormously fast metabolism, if it can’t feed for even a single day, it dies.
Two Other Forms of Sugar Are Also Dangerous for Hummingbirds
There are two other natural sweeteners that can have disastrous effects on hummingbirds.
Agave nectar and Honey
If you live in the Southwest, you could have seen hummingbirds feeding on agave flowers. It’s natural to wonder how this product could be toxic to them.
The problem is the amount. In small quantities, agave nectar is just another sugar source for hungry hummingbirds.
In large amounts, however, it blocks the absorption of sugars from the digestive tract into the bloodstream.
This effect also occurs in humans, which is one of the reasons people use it.
But the amount of agave nectar a hummingbird gets from a feeder is proportionally 10 to hundreds of times more than a human gets by using it as an occasional sweetener.
When hummingbirds OD on agave nectar at feeders, their digestive tracts shut down. They can become weak and vulnerable even though they are feeding all day long. They can die.
The other natural product that is toxic to hummingbirds is honey.
This also seems strange since, after all, bees collect the raw materials for honey in flowers.
Usually, bees can’t reach the deeper, tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds, but the nectar is similar.
The problem with honey is that it behaves differently when it is full strength and when it is diluted.
Full-strength honey is antibacterial. There are even medical dressings made with honey to kill bacteria.
Diluted honey is an excellent food for bacteria. It becomes a reservoir of microorganisms that can make it go sour fast, or spread infections.
Filling a hummingbird feeder with pure honey is not the answer. Not only is honey expensive, it won’t flow through the feeder ports freely.
To the extent honey can come out of the feeder ports, it also attracts bees.
The only kind of sugar to use for making hummingbird nectar is pure, white, granulated sugar.
The Perfect Hummingbird Food Recipe
The ideal way to make hummingbird food is to mix one part of white, granulated sugar in four parts of water and then stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Examples of your measurements include these:
- One cup of sugar in four cups of water.
- One-half cup of sugar in two cups of water.
- One-quarter cup of sugar in one cup of water.
- 200 grams of sugar in a liter of water.
- 100 grams of sugar in 500 ml of water.
- 50 grams of sugar in 250 ml of water
Sterilize the sugar water solution before you put it in the hummingbird feeder. All you have to do is to bring it to a boil.
Then cool it to room temperature before filling the feeder, so you won’t crack the glass or melt the plastic.
Put out just enough nectar to feed your hummingbirds for a day or two. It’s better to have the feeder run dry for a few hours than to have so much nectar in it that it spoils.
It’s OK to keep extra hummingbird food in the refrigerator for up to a week if you sterilize it first. Wash the storage container with hot water (no soap!) before you reuse it.
It’s possible to attract hummingbirds with a stronger or weaker sugar water solution, but the four to one ratio of water to sugar works best.
Flower nectar has about three parts of water to one part of natural sugar. It’s sweeter than the nectar you put in your feeder.
You want your hummingbirds to prefer flowers to your feeder. This gives them more opportunities to find food without making them dependent on you.
That’s why you shouldn’t make hummingbird food with water to sugar ratio of three to one.
On the other hand, hummingbirds will stop at a feeder that has food made with five parts of water to one part of sugar.
They just won’t make it a highlight on their tour of the neighborhood, and you won’t see them as often.
What Kind of Feeder Should You Use?
It’s important to choose a hummingbird feeder that is easy to clean.
It’s essential to be able to take the feeder apart so you can clean all surfaces thoroughly at least once a week.
The Droll Yanke, Perky-Pet Hummingbird Oasis, and Aspects HummZinger are easy to disassemble for cleaning.
It’s also to have a little moat to keep out ants.
The Hummingbird Oasis and HummZinger feeders have moats in the middle that holds water that keeps ants out of the feeder ports.
These feeders also give you unobstructed views of the hummingbirds visiting your feeder at any feeder port.
Ant and Bee Control
Ant moats at the top of the feeder will drown most ants.
If you have so many ants that they form a little ball to swim across the moat, the only thing to do is to take the feeder down, clean it carefully, and move it to another location.
This rare problem only occurs with fire ants. You could spray cooking oil or natural non-stick cooking spray on the hanger, but this makes a sticky mess, and you will have to repeat applications throughout the year.
The best way to keep bees out of your hummingbird feeder is to make sure any feeder you buy is bee-proof and wasp-proof.
The syrup level in each feeder port has to be within reach of a hummingbird’s long tongue but too low for bees and wasps to reach it. Feeders do this with bee guards.
If your backyard also attracts orioles, they may pull off the bee guards. Reattach the bee guards, and move the feeder a few steps away to a new position.
If that doesn’t work, take the feeder down for a day or two and put it back up in a different position.
Bees and wasps won’t spend as much time looking for their new position as hummingbirds.
Red Saucer Feeders
Red saucer feeders have several advantages:
- They are red, which makes them attractive to hummingbirds.
- They are a saucer, giving hummingbirds a safe place to perch when they feed.
- They can come with an ant moat.
- And they have deep feeder ports that keep the nectar at a depth a hummingbird can reach but a bee or wasp can’t.
The downside to using a red saucer feeder is that it needs maintenance nearly every day.
Plastic can be harder to clean than glass, and it won’t last as long. Plastic can fade, warp, and crack over time.
If you only put out enough sugar solution to feed your hummingbirds for a day or two in warm weather, you will have a lot fewer problems keeping feeders clean.
Always clean the feeder if the sugar water inside it looks cloudy, or you see mold.
Hanging feeders in the shade reduce fermentation and mold growth, but placing them in the sun makes them easier for hummingbirds to find.
Never use bleach or soap to clean hummingbird feeders. Even tiny traces of bleach or soap left behind after rinsing can be harmful.
Vinegar and water are safe for cleaning feeders. They are really all you need if you have a specially designed sponge or brush for hard-to-reach places inside the feeder.
If you do use soap or bleach for severe molding or other issues, rinse the cleaner with a mixture of vinegar and water to get as much chemical residue out of the feeder as you can.
But it’s better just to replace the feeder.
How Long Do Hummingbirds Need Your Feeder?
Hummingbird feeders only supply supplemental nutrition for hummingbirds. They also need insects for the protein and fat they need to survive.
When the insect population disappears, they will migrate in search of protein nutrition to a new site.
But the general rule is this: As long as you see hummingbirds coming to your feeder, keep feeding them.
If you live in an area where hummingbirds breed in the summer, then you should put up feeders about two weeks ahead of the expected arrival of the first hummingbirds.
Males will arrive first to scout out flower banks where they are likely to find female hummingbirds later.
These colorful hummingbirds will be your first backyard hummers of the year.
In their summer breeding grounds, hummingbirds will benefit from feeders until mid- or sometimes late summer.
They may start their migration south as early as July. The farther south you are, the sooner they will leave.
But they will be replaced by passing hummingbirds starting their migration from farther north later in the summer.
This way, there are always flowers for migrating hummingbirds as they fly from all over North America to the tropics.
If you live in an area where hummingbirds are mainly passing through on their fights between their northern breeding grounds and their tropical winter locations, keep hummingbirds full in the spring and fall.
Again, the rule is to keep hummingbird feeders full as long as there are hummingbirds visiting them.
In California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, there are hummingbirds that don’t fly south for the winter. Texas even has one species of hummingbird that flies north for the winter.
Winter hummingbirds congregate around feeders. They lose their normal territorial defensiveness.
You may see two, three, or even four unrelated hummingbirds at the same feeder at the same time.
Hummingbirds that mostly feed at dusk or dawn during warm weather will appear at your feeder 24 hours a day in the winter.
There will be birds that prefer to come out of hiding around midnight for a quick snack.
It helps to provide them with a night light so they can find your feeder and keep an eye out for feral cats that might also be looking for a quick snack.
If you keep your feeders open all winter, your yard may even become the neighborhood attraction for hummers. They may even try to raise babies in the winter in your yard.
Even if you live in a cold-winter climate, keep an open mind about winter hummingbirds. Every year, more and more backyard bird watchers
are reporting hummingbirds that choose not to migrate when they have heated hummingbird feeders.
Winter-fed hummingbirds become tame and friendly. If you ever want to train a hummingbird to perch on your finger or drink out of your hand, keeping a feeder going all year round will create the opportunity to do it.
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