Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Hummingbird formula calls for sugar, not honey

By STACEY COLE June 15. 2018 5:56PM
Experts say honey is healthier, but small amounts of sugar are safer to use in mixtures for hummingbird feeders. (Courtesy/Cheryl LeBlanc)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on June 10, 2000.

At this time of year I am frequently asked to comment on the proper formula to use in feeding wild hummingbirds. Specifically, readers have inquired if I recommend a honey mixture.

Historically, there has been a great deal of controversy as to what formula to use in feeding hummingbirds. One part granulated white sugar to two parts of water was accepted as the standard for a long time. More recently it was discovered that this formula could prove to be too rich and cause enlargement of the bird’s liver. Some have suggested that because of its greater sweetness, the two-parts water to one part sugar mixture might better attract hummingbirds to a new feeder. However, I am of the opinion that this heavy sugar content formula should not be fed over an extended period of time.

A mixture of four parts water to one part sugar should be used over the long haul in order to remove a possible cause of liver damage. This lighter mixture has proven as effective in encouraging hummingbirds to return to feeders as the heavier combination has. It can easily be made by bringing a quarter cup of sugar in a cup of water to a full boil and then turning off the heat. Don’t let the boiling continue for very long as the sugar-water mixture will become too concentrated. Red food coloring is not needed as in all probability the hummingbird feeder itself will be red. To prevent the sugar mixture from becoming moldy, it is best to prepare a new solution every three or four days.

Thirty or so years ago, honey was the recommended food for hummingbirds as it contained greater nutritional properties than sugar. Today, though, experts say one should never use honey as it quickly ferments and could make the birds sick.

Walter Scheithauer, an authority on the feeding of hummingbirds, reported in 1967 that honey is a marvelous energy provider and that certain constituents of honey serve to protect hummingbirds from disease carriers. Several years later, it was discovered that some hummingbirds that had been sipping on honey had succumbed to a fatal fungus disease that affected their tongues. A Brazilian hummingbird authority, Dr. Augusto Ruschi, discovered the cause of the disease. He found that it was brought about by fermented, moldy mixtures of honey and water.

There is no question that honey is a far superior food for hummingbirds than sugar. However, if one does decide to use it, great care should be taken to make sure the hummingbird feeder is kept clean at all times and the supply of honey mixture is fresh.

John V. Dennis wrote in his book, “A Complete Guide To Bird Feeding,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1984:

“The first step in using honey is to mix one part honey by volume with four parts water. The water should first be boiled in order to kill bacteria and thus reduce the possibility of fermentation. Add the honey to water after the water has cooled to a lukewarm temperature. Mixing should not take place while the water is hot. If you would rather not have the worries of using honey, there is always granulated white sugar . . . Although sugar is safer to use, it also has its worrisome side.

“Use white sugar (there is little extra advantage in dextrose and other sugars) and stir in one part by volume to four parts water. Boil for two or three minutes. Boiling helps retard fermentation and makes the syrup a proper consistency. Place the mixture in a closed container in the refrigerator for storage. These precautions are important in halting fermentation and mold growth. Apply fresh solution only to vials that are empty and that have been cleaned.

“Having gotten successfully through the first steps in hummingbird feeding, many fail in one of the most important requirements of all. This is to keep feeders clean and filled with a fresh solution. Hummingbirds are fussy and will not come to feeders that have been neglected; they are quickly discouraged when they find the feeders empty. Every time you fill or change the solution, rinse the feeder inside and out with water and remove any dirt or sticky residues with a stiff bottle brush.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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