What Do Hummingbirds Eat?

Written by Heather Hall
Updated: December 4, 2022
© Keneva Photography/Shutterstock.com
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Key Points:

  • Believe it or not, hummingbirds don’t only live on nectar. They are true omnivores!
  • A hummingbird’s bill is excellent for eating nectar, but also for hunting insects and spiders.
  • You should not add red dye to hummingbird food, just plain sugar water is preferable.

The hummingbird (a family comprised of more than 300 species, found mostly in the tropics but distributed worldwide) is among nature’s most talented flyers. Beating their wings up to 90 times a second, these amazing birds can complete deft aerial maneuvers and even fly backward without a hitch. In order to execute these physically demanding flights of fancy, however, their heart rate can easily reach more than a thousand beats per minute. As a result, they need a diet very high in concentrated energy to support their active lifestyles. People often leave out hummingbird birders in their yards to attract these magnificent and colorful creatures.

What Does the Hummingbird Eat?

Hummingbirds eat nectar, aphids, spiders, and mosquitos.

©A-Z-Animals.com

The hummingbird is best described as a true omnivore. It requires a steady source of flower nectar, supplemented with plenty of arthropods (insects and spiders) to support its frenetic activity, including: mosquitoes, ants, aphids, beetles, gnats, wasps, and varied small insects. When in flight, the hummingbird has the highest metabolic rate of any known animal. When they’re not flying (around 70% to 80% of the time), the hummingbird often enters a state of deep sleep in which its heart and breathing rate slows to conserve energy and digest food. It can eat anywhere between half and twice its body weight in food per day.

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The ratio of nectar to arthropods can change quite a bit depending on the season and the habitat in which they reside. Based on a study of their stomach contents, hummingbirds may be more dependent on arthropods than once believed. Arthropods are an important source of protein and in some cases may comprise their main source of food.

Hummingbirds are not fruit eaters, but sometimes, they will take advantage of the situation created by the sapsucker, a type of woodpecker that drills rows of holes in trees to feed on the sap contents within. The tree sap just happens to mirror the sugar content found in nectar and therefore provides a good alternative food source. Some hummingbirds will even follow the sapsucker from tree to tree as they release the sap hidden within.

What do Hummingbirds Eat in the Winter?

Many northern species of hummingbirds migrate south in the winter. This allows them to maintain a similar diet that they enjoy during the spring and summer: a combination of flower nectar and arthropods. They don’t really have a specific diet in the winter though.

What do Baby Hummingbirds Eat?

Baby hummingbirds mostly eat the same foods as their adult counterparts. When the parents return with a mixture of nectar and arthropods, they will regurgitate the food into the open mouths of their young. It usually takes at least three weeks until the baby birds have fully-fledged and begin to hunt on their own.

How do Hummingbirds Eat?

Hummingbirds beat their wings up to 90 times per second.

©iStock.com/photofxs68

Hummingbirds have evolved a highly dependent relationship with the local flowers in their ecosystem. Their bills are specially shaped so they can scoop nectar directly out of the base of the flower. Some beaks are so strange and exaggerated in their curvature that they could have only adapted for a specific type of flower. In return for this nectar, hummingbirds help the plants pollinate by carrying pollen as they move from one food source to the next. The pollen will often become lodged in their beaks as they drink.

Most of the flowers that they frequent are normally colored in some shade of red, orange, or pink to provide a visual cue (other colors are possible as well). Hummingbirds are very good at assessing the sugar content of nectar and will reject any flower that does not meet their high standard. When they drink, the hummingbird will open its bill slightly and lap up the liquid with its narrow tongue. The nectar is so important to the bird’s survival that it will sometimes protect its food source from intruders.

It may be somewhat surprising, then, that these highly specialized nectar feeders are also very adept at hunting insects and spiders. They deploy multiple types of hunting strategies. One strategy is called hover gleaning. This occurs when the bird hovers a few inches from a food source (such as a spider web or plant) and captures the prey with its beak and tongue. Another method is called hover hawking. This occurs when the bird flies rapidly through a swarm of insects and picks them off one by one. The hummingbird also has the ability to wait patiently on a perch and then swoop down to pick off prey.

What Insects do Hummingbirds Eat?

The answer to that question really depends on where they live. Hummingbirds usually enjoy some combination of ants, fruit flies, beetles, aphids, mosquitoes, weevils, gnats, and other types of insects. They also like to pick off insects caught in spider webs, sometimes even consuming the spider in the process. They tend to avoid dangerous stinging insects such as bees that may compete for similar food sources.

What is a Hummingbird’s Favorite Food?

Nectar appears to be their main source of food, but recent studies have revealed hummingbirds actually consume vast quantities of spiders and even some insects as well. Perhaps as much as 80% of their diet can be meat-based.

What can I Feed Hummingbirds Besides Sugar Water?

Hummingbirds generally eat nectar from flowers that are a shade of red, orange, or pink.

©iStock.com/Chelsea Sampson

Refined sugar water seems to be the best thing you can feed them, but honey sometimes works as well. Artificial sweeteners should be avoided; they may have ingredients that could prove harmful to the bird. You should also be aware that adding red food coloring is unnecessary and petroleum-based dyes like Red Dye #40 can be harmful to hummingbirds. Other than that, there’s really nothing else you can feed them. Hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water should always provide a suitable meal for the bird; the only downside to an artificial feeder is that it does prevent them from engaging in their natural behavior of spreading pollen between flowers.

A Summary of the Top 10 Foods the Hummingbird Eats

The hummingbird is a highly unusual eater. It tends to be very picky about a single source of food (nectar) and not very picky about its choice of other foods. This list should give you an idea of how many types of insects it can consume.

  • Nectar
  • Sap
  • Spiders
  • Aphids
  • Weevils
  • Mosquitoes
  • Beetles
  • Fruit flies
  • Ants
  • Gnats

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The Featured Image

hummingbird in flight with blurred background
hummingbird in flight with blurred background
© Keneva Photography/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I am a freelance writer with 22 years of experience. I live in the Pacific Northwest and am surrounded by nature. When I go for my daily runs I often see herds of elk, deer, and bald eagles. I am owned by two dogs who take me on hikes in the mountains where we see coyotes, black bears, and wild turkeys.

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