Be Your Own Birder

Should You Boil Hummingbird Nectar?

Making hummingbird nectar is easy – it’s a simple ratio of sugar to water, and refill the feeder. But is it really easy after all? There’s great debate over whether or not sugar water for hummingbirds needs to be boiled.

Why Boil Nectar?

There are three main ideas behind boiling nectar for hummingbirds.

  1. Boiling removes impurities from the water, thus making it safer for hummingbirds.
  2. Boiling sterilizes the water and minimizes contamination so it will not ferment as quickly.
  3. Boiling makes it easier for sugar to dissolve so that nectar can be made more quickly.

Each of these ideas has some merit, but perhaps not as much as many birders may realize.

Boiling Water - Photo by Zeev Barkan
Boiling Water – Photo by Zeev Barkan

Does Boiling Remove Water Impurities?

Different water sources can have a wide range of contaminants and impurities, from bacteria, parasites, and microbes to heavy metals, chemicals, dirt, chlorine, lead, pesticides, herbicides, dissolved gasses, and other compounds. Municipal tap water is treated and filtered before being used, and a myriad of tests are frequently run to ensure the water is safe to drink. That does not mean the water is 100 percent pure, but only that the levels of potential impurities are not considered dangerous for human consumption.

Hummingbirds are not humans, of course, and their tolerances and sensitivities to different water contaminants may be far different than ours (though very little authoritative research has been done in this area). In general, however, wildlife rehabilitators, including those who work closely with hummingbirds, agree that tap water is typically safe for hummers.

Running Faucet - Photo by Gabriel Rocha
Running Faucet – Photo by Gabriel Rocha

Boiling, however, will not remove most impurities from water. When water reaches a rolling boil (212 degrees Fahrenheit, or 100 degrees Celsius), dissolved gasses will be removed, and living organic contaminants – bacteria, parasites, and microbes – will be killed. Other impurities, however, will remain in the water. If the water is heavily boiled for a long period, these remaining impurities may even be further concentrated and could present a greater risk when the water is consumed (though this is unlikely).

It is important to recognize that the levels of impurities in tap water are so very miniscule that they do not generally present a significant risk for hummingbird nectar, boiled or not. Therefore, boiling to remove impurities is not necessary.

Boiling to Reduce Fermentation

Fermentation occurs when the sugar in hummingbird nectar is consumed by microbes or bacteria. As those organisms digest, the sugar is converted into different byproducts, such as lactic acid and alcohol. If there are no microbes or bacteria in the nectar, there will be no organisms to consume the sugar and cause fermentation. Because boiling water will kill microbes and bacteria, it will inhibit fermentation and the nectar will stay fresh for longer.

This sounds ideal, but it is critical to remember that the nectar will only remain fresh and sterile so long as it is not touched by any contaminated objects. A hummingbird’s bill, however, is a contaminated object.

Anna's Hummingbird With a Dirty Bill - Photo by Becky Matsubara
Anna’s Hummingbird With a Dirty Bill – Photo by Becky Matsubara

Hummingbirds visit a wide variety of flowers and feeders throughout the day. They wipe their bills on branches, twigs, and leaves, preen through their own feathers, collect nesting material, and eat insects. All of these actions put microbes and bacteria on their bills and tongues. When a hummingbird then dips its bill into a hummingbird feeder and licks at the nectar, some of those microbes and bacteria wash off, and the nectar is now contaminated.

Take note of that again – as soon as a hummingbird sips from a feeder, bacteria and microbes are introduced, and any benefit from boiling the nectar is lost. Therefore, boiling the nectar before filling a feeder is unnecessary, as the nectar will be contaminated immediately when a hummingbird visits.

Boiling to Help Sugar Dissolve

Warm liquids dissolve crystals more quickly, and boiling water will more quickly dissolve sugar to make hummingbird nectar. Yet we must consider the saturation of the sugar water solution to determine if this has any benefit for making hummingbird nectar.

White Table Sugar - Photo by Marco Verch
White Table Sugar – Photo by Marco Verch

The preferred hummingbird nectar recipe is one part sugar to four parts water. Assuming you are making one cup of nectar, you will then use one-quarter cup of sugar.

  • One cup of water = 236 milliliters
  • One-quarter cup of sugar = 50 grams

At typical room temperature (68-72 degrees Fahrenheit or 20-22 degrees Celsius), one cup of water will dissolve roughly 76 grams of sugar (see “An Introduction to Chemistry: Supersaturation“). This is far more than the sugar necessary for the proper nectar recipe. Heating the water will dissolve more sugar, yes, but there is no need, as increasing the water-to-sugar ratio is not recommended for making hummingbird nectar.

As an alternative to heating the water to dissolve the sugar, you can simply agitate the water by stirring or shaking. This will help disrupt the sugar crystals, allowing it to dissolve rapidly, no extra heat needed.

So What Does Boiling Do?

The only thing boiling water to make hummingbird nectar will do is it will – very slightly – help the sugar dissolve more quickly. Yet it is also recommended that you only refill hummingbird feeders with cool nectar. The time you save heating the water in order to save a few seconds for dissolving the sugar will simply be spent waiting for the nectar to cool again so you can refill the feeder. Thus, you haven’t really saved any time at all, and in fact may need to wait even longer for very hot nectar to cool sufficiently so feeders can be safely refilled.

Do I Boil My Hummingbird Nectar?

I do not boil the water I use to make hummingbird nectar, and I never have. My hummingbirds have not shown any disdain for unboiled nectar, and they still happily sip away at my feeders every time they are refilled.

Busy Hummingbird Feeder - Photo by jeffreyw
Busy Hummingbird Feeder – Photo by jeffreyw

I do, however, slightly warm the water I use to make nectar, using a stainless steel pot and stirring in the sugar with a metal spoon (as opposed to the wooden spoons I use for cooking, which may have some lingering residue even after cleaning). This only makes it easier to dissolve the sugar quickly, and the nectar cools off as I reassemble the hummingbird feeder.

If you want to boil the water you use for hummingbird nectar, go right ahead. It isn’t really doing anything to benefit the birds, but unless you’re boiling the water down to dregs (which would completely disrupt the water-to-sugar ratio), you aren’t doing any harm either, and the hummingbirds will appreciate both boiled and non-boiled nectar.

Do you boil water to make hummingbird nectar?

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31 thoughts on “Should You Boil Hummingbird Nectar?

  1. Gina

    I never boil the water, but I usually let the tap water run hot and then fill my measuring cup. Then I stir the sugar in until the water is clear, then I’ll add an ice chip or small cube to it to help it cool, figuring that wouldn’t throw off the ratio enough to matter. Or I’ll place it in the freezer for a couple of minutes and set a timer. Now that I know it doesn’t even need to be that hot, I’ll just make run the tap water at a tepid to warm temperature.

    Good article!

    1. Coene

      This is exactly what I do!! Three parts hot-ish water to disolve the sugar. Then the last part water is ice cubes, to cool it off a little. I’m pretty sure my hummers don’t mind me not boiling.

    2. Karin

      The water from the hot water tank is not as clean as the water from the cold water so it’s better to use just plain cold water.

    3. Karin Pelton

      Using the hot water from your tap has stuff from the hot water heater in it that’s not good for us or hummingbirds. Also if you don’t drain your hot water heater once in a while (once a year) the film or sediments that are floating around in your hot water heater aren’t good. Especially if you have hard water. Just some information.

    4. Karin Pelton

      Your hot tap water has sediments in it from your hot water heater it’s not good for the hummingbirds or you. Look into it. It’s better to boil but that’s just my opinion.

    5. David Dyson

      Using hot tap water means it has sat in your water heater. I have drained some water heaters and there is a lot of nasty crud full of impurities and I would say bacteria that comes out.
      I and my family NEVER drink hot tap water for this very reason.
      Always use cold or bottled water and then heat for coffee and bring to a good boil in the microwave for our defenseless Hummers.
      Go drain your water heater and watch the filth that comes out.
      Lets not kill hummers thru ignorance.

      1. Mayntz Post author

        Interesting point on the sediment in a hot water heater, but also note that the sediment is at the bottom of the tank – it’s unlikely that you’d be running your hot water long enough to stir up that sediment sufficiently to make a difference to the composition of hummingbird nectar. Of course, it would also depend on the size of the heater, how old it is, and when it was last flushed/drained. Thanks for sharing, David!

        1. Ginni

          Maybe not sediment, but depending on your tank temperature setting, if it’s not hot enough there could still be a lot of bacteria and parasitic growth that could cause harm.

          1. Mayntz Post author

            Perhaps, but most settings are certainly hot enough and the filtration and other treatments to tap water take care of the rest. If the water is safe for you to drink, it is likewise safe to make nectar.

      2. Ginni

        I 100% agree with the hot tap water. But I would never use the microwave to heat it, as this changes the molecular structure of the water and may be as harmful to little birds as it is to plants. Just use a kettle.

        1. Mayntz Post author

          Please note that a microwave does NOT change the molecular structure of water, it doesn’t have the energy to do so and such myths have been debunked. It only heats it, and is no different than heating in any other way – none of which is necessary, as this article explains.

  2. SG

    I do not boil.
    My water source is avery deep artesian well that has been tested for harmful bacteria.
    So there’s no chlorine or other trace chemicals that are found in municipal water.
    I prepare 1 liter of “nectar”, partially fill two small feeders and refill daily from a refrigerated bottle of said “nectar”. The hummers fight for the right to sip!

    1. Sesi Miller

      im doing the same from now on! we also have a deep artesian well, no municipke additives either, only i make a littke,over a gallon every other day.. ill appreciate any short cut!

    1. Mayntz Post author

      No reason why not, so long as it’s not flavored or anything like that, just be sure there aren’t any heavy contaminants (if you can drink it, it’s most likely fine for hummingbirds as well – I’d use it!).

        1. Mayntz Post author

          Distilled water would be absolutely fine, of course! The residues in tap water are so miniscule it isn’t an issue, but if you feel more comfortable making nectar with distilled, it certainly won’t hurt.

  3. Cathy Rabbitt

    When I make mine, I measure the sugar into my container. I then pour in half the needed hot tap water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved then use cold tap water to cool enough to use right away.

  4. Dennis ESKHOLME

    I am so glad that someone took the time to research this issue deeper. I have been chastised for NOT boiling the water for nectar. Thank You for settling this dis-agreement.

  5. Morgan

    I am a Wildlife rehabilitator who specializes in hummingbirds. They are all I work with 24/7/365 there is at least one hummingbird under my care.

    I never boil the water, my counterparts don’t either. It is completely unnecessary and a giant waste of time and effort. I make it by pouring 4 cups of sugar and 8 cups of water into my kitchen aid mixer. Then I let it stir it until it has dissolved the sugar. Before adding it to feeders, I pour 2 cups of the concentrated mixture into a measuring cup, then add 2 cups of tap water to create the 1:4 ratio. The concentrate is stored in my fridge in an air tight container for up to a week.

  6. Ronald Bender

    I have to boil the water as I have hundreds of hummingbirds. I have always used about a 3 to 1 mixture and I boil the water and make 3 to 4 gallons of nectar at a time. This only last about one week. I boil the water, so the, bacteria will be destroyed and I realize it’s not perfect but it helps because I use a shallow well for the water. I have to do this outside because I am using so much nectar that my house would be overrun with ants just from the tiny spills that would happen. I’ve been doing it this way for 15 years. The hummingbirds seem to come to my place and the neighbors have trouble getting hummingbirds to come to their feeders. But I do live at the edge of a woods and I think they like that. I am using about 8 pounds of sugar per week.

  7. Charlien

    I read one that said not to use softened water. I use our house water. Perhaps I should use the same well water, but from an outside faucet that does not go through the softener.
    I have been boiling the water, but will discontinue and make sure my feeders are changed frequently if they do not eat it all in a day or so. I have three feeders that I need to refill about 3 times per day each.
    Should the feeders ever be washed with soap and water? I do not believe so, but will ask.

    1. Mayntz Post author

      Hi! Absolutely you should wash feeders with soap and water occasionally, just be sure to rinse and dry them very thoroughly before refilling with nectar so there is no remaining soap residue.

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