Hummingbird feeders when not maintained may cause harm to hummingbirds. The things that are bad for hummingbirds are red food coloring, dirty feeders, not following the hummingbird nectar recipe and failing to protect from bees and ants--but all these things are easily remedied.
Read on for all the details and specifics of what I discovered about safely feeding hummingbirds.
Female Anna's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
What possible bad can come to hummingbirds from feeders?
Science writer Anita Sanchez has an article on her blog that plainly states her sentiment. The article is entitled, "Why hummingbird feeders are a terrible idea." (source) She has two main arguments against feeding hummingbirds.
Red food coloring
The first reason Sanchez lists for saying that hummingbird feeders are bad for hummingbirds is the growing possibility that red food coloring may be harming hummingbirds.
The Audubon Society's Hummingbird FAQs (source) recommends against adding food coloring to hummingbird nectar. Its brief reason is that red food dye "could" be harmful to birds.
What does the Hummingbird Society have to say about red food coloring? (source) Well, its page on feeding hummingbirds gives the recipe to make it yourself and then has the words in bold: "No red food coloring!" with no further explanation.
Red dye number 2 (Amaranth) was banned in the United States in 1976 (Wikipedia article here). Its use was replaced by Red dye number 40 (Allura Red AC) (Wikipedia). There is no definitive proof that red food coloring is bad for hummingbirds. Nevertheless, coloring the hummingbird nectar red is not necessary. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red and red flowers. Most hummingbird feeders have red feeder ports or decorations that are ample to get the birds' attention and interest.
Some commercial hummingbird nectars contain red food dye. But making your own hummingbird food is both easier and cheaper. There's no need to add red food coloring. Since most recipes advise against adding food coloring, the practice of doing so is becoming less common. Since you have complete control over whether your hummingbird food has dye or not, I don't consider this a valid reason not to feed hummingbirds.
Not keeping the feeder clean
Sanchez's second argument that feeding hummingbirds is bad for them has to do with feeder cleanliness. She says she's too lazy (her words) to keep her feeders clean on a regular basis. Here, I'd have to agree with her. If you are unwilling to wash your hummingbird feeder to keep diseases away, then the hummingbirds would be better off without your feeders.
The hummingbird nectar may become cloudy with bacteria. Mold may grow on the inside of the feeder. Thus, feeders need to be cleaned often.
The Audubon article mentioned above recommends cleaning 2 times per week in hot weather, once per week in cooler weather. It also recommends cleaning every time the feeder is emptied by hungry hummingbirds. Do not refill a hummingbird feeder without cleaning! Audubon recommends hot water, or a weak vinegar solution, rather than soap, which may leave a harmful residue.
The Hummingbird Society says to use mild detergent (not soap). Okay, there's a difference that I've always wondered about. The dishwashing liquid I use to hand wash the dishes is evidently a detergent (as is the laundry detergent), while the hand soap (bar or liquid) is a soap. Soap contains fats (animal or vegetable). So it's okay to use liquid dish
When choosing a hummingbird feeder look for one with a wide mouth that allows you to reach inside with a scrub brush. Find one without many nooks and crannies that are difficult to clean. Some hummingbird feeders are dishwasher safe and may be more thoroughly cleaned this way every so often.
What other problems can cause hummingbird feeders to be bad for hummingbirds?
Over at The Spruce (source) writer Melissa Mayntz mentions two other hummingbird feeder mistakes that can be bad for hummingbirds.
Using the wrong sweeteners for hummingbird food
The only acceptable human-provided hummingbird food nectar contains refined white sugar. You may personally believe you consume too much overly-processed foods and sugar. However, refined white sugar is pure sucrose diluted with 4 parts water to perfectly match the nectar of plants upon which hummingbirds feed.
As Mayntz notes, using any other sweetener besides sugar is bad for hummingbirds. Raw sugar, molasses, and honey are especially bad for hummingbirds. These either directly impact the health of hummingbirds or encourage the growth of other pathogens detrimental to hummingbirds.
Candidiasis is an infection from fungus that hummingbirds get from unclean hummingbird nectar. It develops quickly in nectar made with honey. Never feed hummingbirds honey! It is the same yeast that causes vaginal infections and the disease thrush in humans. In hummingbirds the tongue swells and won't retract. It is almost always fatal in wild hummingbirds.
Sugar content in natural flower nectar does vary. But homemade nectar in your hummingbird feeders should stick close to 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. [See my article on hummingbird food nectar recipe.]
Less sugar than the 1:4 ratio and hummingbirds won't be attracted to the feeders. More than 1:3 sugar to water ratio is too strong and is bad for hummingbird liver and kidneys. Higher sugar concentrations may also spoil more quickly, as Mayntz notes.
Hummingbird feeder insect pests
Hymenoptera are insects that include wasps, bees, and ants. Most species can sting, as well as bite. These are the primary competitors of the hummingbirds for your hummingbird food nectar.
Bees and wasps can be kept away from hummingbird feeders by the design of the feeding port. The hummingbird nectar should not be near the opening. Thus, only the long bill and tongue of the hummingbird should be able to reach down through the feeding port to the liquid.
Bees are attracted to yellow, hummingbirds to red. Choose a hummingbird feeder with red and no yellow, especially at the feeding port.
Hummingbirds eat small insects, such as fruit flies and gnats. Apparently, though, they don't have an appetite for ants. Ants can quickly take over a feeder and keep hummingbirds away. Because ants are small they can crawl down and reach the nectar. Some hummingbird feeders have an ant moat--a cup of water with hooks between the hanger and the feeder. [If you are curious, here is a link to ant moats on Amazon, where you can see various types and price them.]
Insects can quickly contaminate the nectar in hummingbird feeders and should be eliminated.
The argument against the position that hummingbird feeders are bad for hummingbirds
Above I discussed four main arguments given for the position that hummingbird feeders are bad for hummingbirds. I summarize these four arguments below and counter-argue that all these points are easily remedied.
1. People point to the possible harm of red food dye to hummingbirds. Whether true or not, red food coloring is totally unnecessary when making hummingbird food. Most commercial hummingbird foods do contain red food coloring. Don't buy them. Make your own hummingbird nectar. It is cheap, quick and easy.
2. Keeping the feeder clean is always a challenge. However, if you fill the feeder with only the amount of nectar that hummingbirds will consume in 3-4 days, it will always disappear before it goes bad. If you have 2 feeders and alternate refilling days, your hummingbirds should rarely run out of food. Then be determined never to re-fill a feeder without washing it first.
3. The wrong hummingbird food recipe can harm hummingbirds. Yes, this is true. So, don't substitute ingredients when making hummingbird nectar. 1 part refined white sugar to 4 parts water. That's it.
4. Insect pests can drive hummingbirds away from the feeder and contaminate it. Yes, true. Many hummingbird feeders are designed to keep out bees and wasps by moving the nectar away from the feeding port so that only hummingbirds can reach. Ant moats work quite well to keep ants away. Ant moats need to be refilled with water nearly every day.
So, with some determination and forethought on your part, you can safely feed hummingbirds. As the Audubon FAQ states, there really is no downside to feeding hummingbirds. We can supply nectar to the hummingbird's diet, perhaps at a time of year when natural nectar sources are scarce.
Follow the four guidelines here and enjoy feeding hummingbirds with peace of mind!
Read next: Recipe: Hummingbird food: Steal your neighbor's hummingbirds!