There's a secret to having a sustainable and beautiful garden. It's called nectar. Learn what nectar is, why it's so important in nature, and why birds love it so much.
What Is Nectar?
(noun) Nectar is a sweet, nutritious, energy-rich liquid produced by some flowers to attract pollinators such as insects, bats, and birds. Different flowers produce slightly different types of nectar, but each one offers nutrition to the wildlife that drinks it, in exchange for pollinating the flowers so the plants can reproduce.
(rhymes with vector, specter, and collector)
The production of nectar is one way some flowering plants attract pollinators. As the visitors drink the nectar, they rub against the pollen-producing anther of the flower and then transfer pollen to other flowers as they feed in different areas. This allows the plant to reproduce, and the nectar is the pollinators' motivation for visiting multiple flowers and spreading the pollen around for more genetic variation among plants.
The quantity and composition of nectar vary for each flower species but generally contains mostly water and sugar with trace amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, salts, and amino acids. The sugar content ranges from 3-80 percent depending on the type of flower and the soil quality. Flowers will regenerate their nectar over time, though the time for regeneration also varies from a few minutes to several hours. Temperature, soil moisture, and plant age can affect how quickly nectar is replenished and how much is produced at once.
The shape, color, and size of flowers have evolved to indicate to birds and other wildlife that nectar is available. Long, tubular flowers, for example, are ideal for hummingbirds that hover while feeding, while flatter flowers with broadheads are preferred by butterflies that perch as they sip nectar.
Brighter colors are more easily noticed by nectar-loving wildlife, and different flower shapes encourage different types of wildlife to feed.
Birds That Drink Nectar
Many different birds sip nectar, either as a major part of their diet or a supplemental treat when it is easily available. Birds known to drink nectar to varying degrees include:
Birds may access nectar in several ways. Birds with longer, thinner bills, such as hummingbirds, bananaquits, and sunbirds, insert their bills into the flower so they can lick at the nectar directly. Birds with sharp bills, such as warblers, flowerpeckers, and verdins, pierce the bottom of the flower in order to release the stored nectar so it can be drunk easily. Birds with sturdier bills, such as finches, nibble at the flower, crushing the bloom and releasing the nectar that way.
No bird has a diet exclusively of nectar. If a bird did nothing but drink nectar, they would suffer from nutritional deficiencies from a lack of protein, amino acids, and essential minerals. Many nectar-drinking birds get those other critical parts of their diet from eating insects, including spiders and caterpillars. Birds with a more widely varied diet have no trouble meeting their nutritional needs, even if they do sip from flowers occasionally.
Nectar-eating birds are called nectivorous if nectar does make up a large proportion of the majority of their diet, such as with hummingbirds.
In addition to birds, many other types of wildlife enjoy the nectar. Bears, butterflies, bats, squirrels, raccoons, insects, hummingbird moths, lizards, and other wildlife may drink nectar depending on how it is available and what other food sources are nearby.
Artificial nectar can be purchased in powder, concentrate, and ready-to-drink forms. A simple homemade nectar recipe of four parts water to one part sugar can be easily mixed to supplement flowers or fill nectar feeders. This recipe contains a sugar concentration of 20-25 percent, which most closely mimics the sugar concentration in natural nectar that birds prefer. If birders do opt for commercially produced nectar products, it is highly recommended that they avoid offering any nectar varieties that include extra dyes, flavoring, or preservatives, any of which could prove dangerous to birds. Extensive studies have not yet conclusively proven the problems or benefits of such additives, but conscientious birders will not take the risk of endangering birds with excess ingredients that are easily avoided by making homemade nectar.
Planting nectar-bearing flowers and flowering vines is another great way to attract birds with a natural, renewable food source. Bee balms, salvias, zinnias, columbines, coneflowers, butterfly bushes, larkspurs, and petunias are all nectar-rich flowers that will produce ongoing nectar for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife throughout the growing season.