Hummingbirds are known for sipping nectar, but they cannot survive exclusively on a diet of sugar water. Insects provide essential protein for proper muscle and feather development, and are especially critical to feed growing nestlings. Furthermore, insects are important sources of fats, salts, fiber, amino acids, and a range of nutrients critical to a balanced diet. Birders can help hummingbirds enjoy that well-rounded nutrition by feeding hummingbirds insects in different ways.
Insects Hummingbirds Eat
Hummingbirds may eat from a few dozen to several hundred or even a thousand or more insects in one day, depending on the availability of insects, the type of insects, and an individual bird's dietary needs. Because of the birds' small size, they generally choose only small insects that can be easily captured and swallowed, and popular insects in hummingbirds' diets include:
In addition to adult insects, hummingbirds will also eat larvae and insect eggs.
Hummingbirds hunt their prey in a variety of ways. While they may pluck a few insects from nectar-bearing flowers, it is more common for hummingbirds to hawk insects directly in the air, buzzing back and forth in short flights or hovering briefly while they use their exceptional vision to locate suitable prey. Some hummingbirds will glean insects from leaves or bark, hovering nearby as they pluck insect after insect from different surfaces. These birds will also pluck insects from spider webs, and they will visit sap wells or soft fruits to look for insects to ingest, as well as sipping the sap and juice.
Unlike many flycatchers and other insectivorous birds that catch large insects and dismember them to eat, hummingbirds are unable to pick apart their prey because of their unusual build and long, thin bills. Instead, they typically swallow insects whole, sometimes tossing their head back to help swallow the bugs.
Providing Insects for Hummingbirds
There are several ways birders can easily provide a variety of insects for hummingbirds to eat.
- Avoid using any insecticides or pesticides that will kill hummingbirds' food sources. If insecticides must be used, opt for specific chemical formulas rather than broad-based sprays, and confine their use only to areas where birds are unlikely to feed.
- Leave spider webs intact for hummingbirds to glean insects, but if necessary remove large spiders that could become a threat to the birds. Also consider removing the largest, sturdiest webs that could entangle hummingbirds.
- Allow grass to grow slightly longer to foster better populations of gnats and small, flying insects that are favorite prey for hummingbirds. Other insectivorous birds, such as swallows and martins, will also appreciate the feast.
- Grow fruit trees and berry bushes that will attract small insects not only to their blossoms, but also to ripe fruit. After the growing season, leave some fruit intact to become overripe for even more generous insect populations.
- Take steps to attract woodpeckers to the yard, and leave their drilled sap holes intact for hummingbirds to investigate for sap and insects.
Hummingbird Insect Feeders
In addition to the insects naturally in the yard, birders can also offer insects for hummingbirds directly at feeders. While mealworms, crickets, or other insects that can be purchased will not appeal to hummingbirds, it is possible to attract gnats and other small insects to specialized feeders where hummingbirds can enjoy a snack.
- Fruit Plate: Coarsely chop sweet fruits such as melons, bananas, and oranges, and add them to a hanging dish or tray feeder. Within a day or two, the fruit will attract insects, and hummingbirds will readily investigate the buzzing flies as a food source. Ideally, hang the fruit plate in a tree or from an elevated hook or gutter, as hummingbirds prefer to stay above the ground and will be less likely to visit a low tray or platform.
- Fruit Slurry: Create fruit slurry using canned fruit syrup, mashed banana, a splash of hummingbird nectar, a spoonful of sugar, and a spoonful of cake or pancake batter, mixing it to a consistency of a thick brownie batter. Feel free to use your own sweet ingredients in the mix, so long as the consistency is similar. Spread that slurry directly on tree branches or trunks, or use a short section of log or a board that can hang from branches or hooks as an impromptu feeder. Insects will swarm to feed on the slurry, and hummingbirds will feed on the swarm.
Insects are a vital part of a complete, nutritious diet for hummingbirds. Birders who cultivate the proper insects as part of their bird feeding stations will be able to give hummingbirds a greater range of foods to keep them well fed, healthy, and always coming back for another bite.