How to Make Hummingbird Nectar

Making hummingbird nectar is simple, quick, and can turn you into the sugar daddy of your own backyard. Just ask David.

If you’ve visited Leite’s Culinaria even a few times, chances are you’ve discovered I’m known as Fatty Daddy. It’s a nickname I carry with pride–not so much as a nod to my porkly padding but rather for the affection with which it’s uttered by my worshipful staff. [Editor’s Note: Huh?!]

What you most likely don’t know is that for a tiny flock of folks, I’m known simply as Sugar Daddy.

Like all sugar daddies worth their bankrolls, I adhere to a clear-cut arrangement: I willingly pay for homes, take care of bills, and finance endless meals. In exchange, my little chickies are required to delight me, thrill me, charm me.

Lest you think you need to run to The One and warn him that I’ve practically set up a brothel of illicit doings, I’m talking about being a literal sugar daddy—to a squadron of hummingbirds.

For eight summers, our yard has swarmed with daredevil hummingbirds. We affectionately call them “humbees.” They feast on anywhere from one to several feeders, depending on the number of birds in the charm—charm is hummingbird speak for “flock.” And during that time, I’ve learned a lot about feeding, enjoying, and caring for these magnificent tiny flying machines.

What are the benefits of making homemade hummingbird nectar?

A brightly colored hummingbird on a branch as part of the writing 'how to make hummingbird nectar'.
: Zdeněk Macháček

What aren’t the benefits is a better question. Homemade nectar is easy to make. It’s cheap–like 50 cents for a big-ass feeder’s worth. It’s fun and educational for the kids. And it makes you feel connected to nature. (Ok, I’m getting all woo-woo here, but it’s true for me. I feel like I’m giving back to ole Mama Nature and not always taking.)

What’s the recipe for hummingbird nectar?

It couldn’t be simpler.

4 cups water (if your tap water is hard, consider spring water)
1 cup granulated white sugar

  1. In a medium pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat.
  2. Remove the pot and pour in the sugar, stir until it dissolves, and then let the nectar cool completely.
  3. Fill the feeder.
  4. Marvel.

What about using other types of sugar or sweeteners?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Nooooooooo!

You might think you’re being helpful by using organic, natural, or raw sugar, but they all contain varying amounts of impurities, such as iron, that can be harmful. Honey can promote a potentially deadly fungal growth. Brown sugar contains molasses–a big no for the kids–and confectioners sugar contains cornstarch. Stick to the white stuff.

Is red dye harmful to hummingbirds?

An image of 2 hummingbirds feeding from a feeder with red dye in the nectar and an 'x' through the image for the writing 'how to make hummingbird nectar'.
: Alonso Franco

It’s an indubitable truth that hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. Why? Because in nature, red often signifies a high-energy food source. (Think of it as avian Red Bull.) That’s why hummingbird feeders are ruby red. And so, too, are commercial liquid and powdered nectar.

Is red dye harmful to birds? Is it toxic?  Will it kill them? Back in the day, red dye was toxic to humans, and it was thought to be the same for animals. Today, red dye is supposedly safe for humans. But is it safe for hummingbirds? Some hummer experts have witnessed a higher rate of death and tumors in birds that sipped red nectar. Sorry, but my flying jewels aren’t becoming statistics. For me, it’s just sugar, water, and a whole lotta love.

If you feel the need to pimp your feeder, do as I did. I took an old, faded feeder and festooned it with plenty of red ribbons. The hummingbirds found it irresistible. (Why I have rolls of sparkly red ribbon on hand is none of your business, thank you very much.)

How long will hummingbird nectar last?

About a week in the fridge. I used to make a half-gallon of nectar at a time and store it in the fridge in quart-size glass bottles with rubber stoppers. That would last me eight days when we had our biggest charm of birds. Alas, most of my babies didn’t return this year. (I try not to take it personally, and sometimes fantasize they, too, are in pandemic lockdown mode somewhere in Boca Raton, concerned about giving their fat old Sugar Daddy any nasty virus.) This summer, I’ve been making a small batch every two or three days, which is the longest you want the nectar to sit in the feeder, otherwise it will start to ferment.

How to stop hummingbirds from fighting over the feeder

I’ve watched, with unvarnished envy, videos of huge charms of hummingbirds in a feeding frenzy at their round red snack bars. I mean dozens of birds sharing the buffet–graciously swapping seats and giving up their perches, making sure everyone has enough to eat. At our house, especially in years past, these suckers dive-bombed and aggressively chased each other off in the name of protecting a motherlode of nectar so large that could feed the entire feathered population of Rhode Island. (Cue the soundtrack to “The Birds.”) It seemed no one but the mightiest ever sipped. To remedy that, I hung feeders all over the yard, making it impossible to commandeer more than one at a time. Costly? A bit. But at least I got humbee action from every window of the house.

How to help hummingbirds get ready for migration to warmer weather in the autumn

Nectar is energy. And energy feeds humbees’ tiny wings and hearts, which can beat up to 4,800 and 1,300 times per minute, respectively. Toward the end of the season (for us in Connecticut that’s mid-September), I change their nectar ratio from 4:1 to 3:1. It gives the hummingbirds an extra boost of energy for the long haul south.

How can I commune with my hummingbirds?

As flitty as they are, hummingbirds are pretty social creatures. A few summers ago, I got some real Barbara Walters up-close-and-personal time with them. I took one of our flying-saucer feeders off the window and held it out in front of me. A few minutes later, one of the more adventurous males swooped by, hovered inches from my face (so close I could feel the breeze from his wings), then darted away. In no time, he and a bunch of his iridescent brethren were noshing at the feeder. I stood in amazement as they relaxed enough to sit on their perches, oblivious of me. Alas, I fear it was hunger rather than my Buddha-like spirit that attracted them. [Editor’s Note: David asked us to alert you that it’s not him in the video. You would know if it was David by his flair for drama even when standing still.]

Perhaps my greatest joy was the time I positioned my hand so that it covered most of the perch. One brave little Calliope hummingbird alighted on my finger and settled in for a long sip.

It doesn’t get much better than that.


The word "David" written in script.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. Stumbled across this post and loved reading it. My mom lived in a small town in NE Ohio. One year, their charm (thank you for teaching me that word) was over 50. We would sit on her front porch and watch the humbees flit from feeder to feeder (I think they had 10 or so up that year). Thanks to your tips, I think I’m going to put a few feeders out this year and see how it goes. Appreciate the nudge that you didn’t know you gave me.

    1. Yvonne, you are more than welcome. I’d die to have a charm of 50 humbees. The joy that would bring us all–especially Graycie and Georgie, our cats, would be amazing!!