When making sugar water for hummingbirds a lot of people are unsure whether or not to add red dye to the mixture.
It is generally considered that red dye is harmful to hummers, but this hasn’t actually been proven. Earlier dyes were associated with carcinogens, so they were avoided before being banned. More modern food dyes don’t contain these toxins, but as they do contain some ingredients which are not found naturally it’s generally good advice not to use them for hummingbirds.
The good news is, you don’t need to use any dye in your nectar.
How to replace the red dye
The nectar in your feeder needs to resemble the nectar in flowers as much as possible, and flower nectar isn’t red. Adding fruit juice such as pomegranate juice to flavor the water affects the consistency and concentration of the nectar and won’t be as effective.
So how do you attract the birds if the water isn’t red?
This can be done in many ways.
- Most feeders actually help with this and will contain the color red somewhere on the feeder or around it. That is enough to attract the birds to come to feed.
- Tie some red ribbons on the feeder or on the branch which you are hanging it from. The movement combined with the colour may bring the birds to investigate.
- Plant blooms with are red and if they are tubular, that adds more encouragement to the hummingbirds.
Some examples of these are:
- Coral Honeysuckle
- Bee Balm
- Wild Columbine
- Foxglove Beardtongue
- Bleeding Heart
If you prepare your garden well and use plants with are native to your area, you will find the hummingbirds will come back year after year.
Things to avoid
When making your nectar for your feeder, as well as avoiding red dye, there are other things you should be careful of too.
The sugar you use is very important and you should only use refined white sugar as this is the closest to the nectar found in flowers. Never use any of the following as an alternative:
- This can be very harmful to the hummers if it ferments.
- Molasses or treacle. Molasses is very rich in iron and for hummingbirds this can be toxic.
- Brown or raw sugar. As these are not refined, they may still contain traces of molasses.
- Artificial sweeteners. These simply don’t contain the energy which sugar provides and some may contain additives which the birds cannot digest
It is also very important to keep your feeder clean and refresh the nectar as needed. If you simply top up the nectar each time, the older nectar will start to go off and you will eventually discourage the hummingbirds.
- Nectar which looks cloudy needs to be replaced immediately as it may contain bacteria.
- In warm weather sugar can ferment quickly and this can be harmful.
- Sugar water will go moldy if it’s in direct sunlight, so be aware of this and change the water at the first sign of any growth.
- Look out for ants in the nectar. If you have an ant moat they shouldn’t be able to get in, but if you allow the moat to dry out, they could easily find their way in to the nectar and die.
During the summer months clean the feeder twice a week, or more often if it needs it. Once a week give it a thorough clean, but avoid using any strong chemicals such as bleach. Soaking the feeder in soft dish soap will soften any dried on sugar, and swill well in cold water.
Hummingbirds are very small and you must be very careful about what you feed them as their size makes them very susceptible to toxins which may not affect other birds. The best thing is simple sugar water, as this is all you need to attract them if you have made it well.