Is organic sugar safe to feed hummingbirds? The internet says “NO” but science has a different opinion. Get the facts and take a deep dive into the report that this urban myth is based on. Let’s agree that what is best for hummingbirds should dictate our choice.
Is organic white sugar safe to feed to hummingbirds?
I’ve had a lot of comments about my recommendation to use organic sugar in my healthy hummingbird recipe. There are a lot of urban myths that are dictating that people choose exclusively non-organic refined white sugar because of the supposed danger to wild hummingbirds from the trace amounts of iron that may be in organic white sugar. Some of these recommendations cite a single report so I had a closer look at this report to see if the hysteria was warranted.
A single report not a scientific experiment
These fears are based on a single report in 2003, based on an Arizona zoo that had a mass die-off of 25 hummingbirds in a 5 month period. For 13 years until this die off, the zoo had successfully maintained hummingbirds on a diet consisting of a manufactured nectar supplement which reportedly contained 40 mg/kg iron.
A necropsy was done on the birds in the University of Arizona Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. It was inconclusive however, it was noted that the birds had high amounts of iron in the cells of their livers, although there was no evidence of liver pathology in the report. An analysis was done on the artificial nectar powder provided to the hummingbirds in captivity. The nectar supplement was found to contain up to 886 mg/kg of iron (dry weight). The iron listed on the package was 40 mg/kg and this was added in the form of iron sulphate to the nectar feed by the manufacturer. The captive hummingbirds’ diet consisted solely of this supplement nectar and fruit flies.
Subsequently, the zoo reevaluated the diet that they fed their captive hummingbirds to reduce the amount of iron to 20 mg/ kg in the dry nectar powder. No additional pathology has been reported.
This report led to the conclusion that one (unnamed) manufacturer understated the actual amount of iron in their sugar nectar supplement for hummingbirds which presumably led to the death of 25 captive hummingbirds in a 5 month period. Read the report for yourself and see what conclusions you would draw.
There is no way to scientifically move from this study to any recommendation for avoiding organic white sugar. Further, no study has ever been done comparing the results of feeding regular granulated cane sugar to feeding organic white sugar in wild hummingbirds. Nor has a study been done comparing the feeding of GMO sugar beet sugar to organic cane sugar. The recommendations to avoid all organic sugar in favour of nonorganic in hummingbird feed seems unsubstantiated with science.
One would assume then that provided that the sugar used in preparing your hummingbird nectar has less than 20 mg/kg of iron, dry weight, the sugar would be safe for hummingbirds when made into the 1:4 hummingbird nectar supplement commonly used. This zoo fed a nectar supplement that contained 40 mg/kg dry weight for 13 years and was able to rear hummingbirds successfully in captivity, so the 20 mg/kg is a reasonable limit. But there is one other variable that needs to be looked at when choosing which sugar is best for supplemental feeding of wild hummingbirds.
Is it glucose, sucrose, or fructose?
Sucrose is the chemical sugar that is obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets. When metabolized in the human body it breaks down into its building blocks of glucose and fructose. Presumably, the nectar of the flowers favoured by hummingbirds also contain sugar in its sucrose form. Sucrose is the preferred form of sugar consumed by hummingbirds, so when choosing a supplement, it’s good to give them what they want. Feeding hummingbirds supplemental nectar using fructose or glucose won’t harm the hummingbirds but it isn’t their preferred diet. Hummers fed alternative sugars may ignore the offered nectar and seek out wild sources of food.
Wild sources of nectar including red flowers contain varying amounts of glucose, sucrose, or fructose, depending on the flower. Their nectar also contains other beneficial antioxidants and flavonoids that keep hummingbirds healthy. So if you have room, create a hummingbird habitat along with providing them with supplemental nectar.
There’s a lot of variables in choosing the best form of sugar to feed your wild hummingbirds so I created this chart to make your decision easier.
The Iron content of different forms of sugar
While maple syrup and maple sugar are not usual sources of nectar for hummingbirds, there is no problem with using them in your hummingbird feeder if that’s the only sugar you have. Researchers have used maple syrup as hummingbird nectar in experiments with good results. However, these are expensive supplements so they aren’t normally used as hummingbird nectar.
Digging a little deeper into this fear of organic sugar by the “experts”
Wild hummingbirds are exposed to wild sources of food which modulate iron metabolism, making it unlikely that wild hummingbirds would suffer from the same pathology as the captive hummingbirds in the report. In fact, one dominant source of the wild hummingbird diet is incredibly high in iron. But no one suggests preventing hummingbirds from this prolific food source. What is that food source? Mosquitoes!
80% of the hummingbird diet consists of insects, spiders, mosquitoes, gnats, flies, beetles, caterpillars, and bees. Dr. Doug Tallamy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, says:
“Hummingbirds like and need nectar but 80 percent of their diet is insects and spiders. If you don’t have those insects and spiders in your yard, it doesn’t matter how many hummingbird feeders you have, you are not going to be able to support hummingbirds.”
Hummingbirds also gather nectar from other nectar sources — flowers, tree sap, and tree catkins. Given these other sources of wild nectar, your hummingbird feeder is less than 20 % of the wild hummingbird’s diet. Rest assured that organic white sugar is perfectly safe to use as a wild hummingbird nectar supplement. And so are many other forms of sugar you might have in your cupboard.
If you are in Mexico or another country where it is difficult to find white cane sugar, use the raw sugar you can easily get. Your hummingbird feeder is not the sole diet of the wild hummingbirds that visit your feeder. Contrary to the internet myth, using a little turbinado sugar (3.7 mg./ kg of iron) will not harm the wild hummingbirds coming to your feeder.
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Frederick H, Dierenfeld E, Irlbeck N, Dial S. 2003. Analysis of nectar replacement products and a case of iron toxicosis in hummingbirds. In Ward A, Brooks M, Maslanka M, Eds. Proceedings of the Fifth Conference on Zoo and Wildlife Nutrition, AZA Nutrition Advisory Group, Minneapolis, MN.
PEAKER, M. (1990), Nutritional requirements and diets for hummingbirds and sunbirds. International Zoo Yearbook, 29: 109-118. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1090.1990.tb03339.x
Suarez RK, Welch KC. Sugar Metabolism in Hummingbirds and Nectar Bats. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):743. doi:10.3390/nu9070743.
Rio, Carlos. (1990). Sugar Preferences in Hummingbirds: The Influence of Subtle Chemical Differences on Food Choice. The Condor. 92. 1022. 10.2307/1368738.
Thank you so much! We have hummingbird feeder’s & many flowers planted especially for our pollinators, our yard has become a sanctuary! Recently I came across a comment thread of several people berating a few individuals asking about using organic sugar, I was saddened by the amount of “meanness” & bullying, only for asking questions. This to me seemed unreal as I have always found people within these communities nothing but kind & always willing to help & educate others. I personally looked into this, we do not have anything but organic, I have autoimmune & intestinal illnesses & have to be extremely careful about EVERYTHING that I put into my body. What astonished me the most was not one person provided ANY EVIDENCE of harm to the hummers, only pics w/instructions on them, no links or articles or even organizations citing this.
I refuse to engage with people online or in person who result to personally attacking others rather than civil conversation as I have found generally i end up with more anxiety. But I’m going to post this in my gardening group, and on my Pinterest. We ABSOLUTELY need more good information with the WHY, WHAT AND WHERE did this come from, aka the science! So people can make good decisions & keep our hummers & all wildlife (ourselves too!) healthy & happy. I so much appreciate all the information, thank you again!
Hi. I use turbinado sugar in my feeders and the hummers seem to love it. However, I live in a hot climate and when I clean and refill my feeders (approximately every 4 days) I have noticed what I think is an odor of fermentation. Can the sugar ferment in water that fast? And should I switch to an organic cane sugar instead of the Turbinado, which has lots of color to it, and therefore perhaps too much molasses?
Joybilee Farm says
Yes, it can ferment. The warmer it is the faster fermentation happens. Change the feeders more often.
Maggie McKaig says
In hot climates, bacterial growth in your feeders is a big problem. You need to clean your feeders every day no matter what sweetener you put in them.
After reading your research, I have some questions about my sugar product –
Nature’s Promise (Giant, Stop n Shop, or Martin’s food store brand) organic cane sugar, manufactured in Paraguay, has a slight tan tint. The package does not say the sugar has any molasses. It also does not say it is “unrefined.” It says it is “less processed.” What do you think about it?
The words matter, where it’s manufactured matters…boy, am I skeptical anymore! Am I better off just sticking with refined white cane sugar?
Thank you so much for your thorough information!
Stephen Gardbaum says
Thanks for your extremely helpful article. I am slightly confused by one thing. As I have been led to understand it, there is no such thing as organic white sugar, because white sugar is always refined sugar and this process employs potentially harmful chemicals. So, do you perhaps recommend using raw sugar for feeders, which can be organic and results in most but not all of the molasses being removed? If you could let me know which specific brand of sugar you use, this would probably allay my confusion.
Joybilee Farm says
Hi, Stephen, My bag just says “Organic sugar”. You are correct that its not white. But its also not raw. I buy it at Costco.
Stephen Gardbaum says
Thanks very much.
Thank you so much for all of information, I feel so much better, because use the same sugar from Costco to feed my babies!!!
Kate R says
Thank you so much for taking the time to research this issue. I get so annoyed when people assume a causality, without looking at all the data, such as they got a headache one time after ingesting something, so that caused the headache and; therefore, they the avoid the item for the rest of their lives, when in actual fact it may have been stress or exposure to something else that brought on the headache. Or as in the popular myth that all started when someone wrote to an advice columnist stating not to throw rice at weddings because it would kill the birds that ate it. Although this is false, UPI picked it up and many people believe it to this day.
Just wish people would be open to re-evaluating their beliefs from time to time, as we learn more about a subject.
Hi there! I’ve just started using Turbinado Cane Sugar 1:4 (Sugar 1, Water 4) ratio. On the bag, the Iron is listed at 0mg. Is this mixture still ok for them?
Joybilee Farm says
yes, that’s perfect.
Thank you! I have been using Morena pure cane light colored sugar for my hummingbirds a week or so and hated feeding them the recommended by the seller cowers sugar but sis so and ONLY for my hummers bc I know how bad I felt while using it for myself.
Relief! Thanks again!
The hummers seem delighted!
I am confused by the list on here which says not to give hummers molasses, but brown sugar is ok, but I understood that brown sugar is white sugar with molasses in it. Do you know the correct answer about brown sugar being safe for hummers? I have only known white sugar, from Cornell, etc. websites. Thanks.
Joybilee Farm says
The issue is the amount of molasses in brown sugar. It’s a miniscule amount. See the chart.
Daniela Hutyrova says
Thank you SO much for this information!! I have been kicked (by the experts) out of the huge hummingbird organisation face book page for trying to spread the word that non organic, GMO, Monsanto glyphosate , neonicotinoids and who knows what else full of crap they promote is so dangerous. It breaks my heart seeing all those well meaning hummingbird lovers follow this crazy and dangerous recommendation:( Thank you so much for doing this. Do you, by any chance ,have some social media platform that I could send people to join and spread the word?
Joybilee Farm says
I know how you feel. The crazies have been here slamming me, too. So much misinformation going around.
I had this experience today, however the person wasn’t too terrible in the way they “called me out” based on the Audubon’s recommendation. It doesn’t make sense that the Audubon is recommending non-organic sugar…but they are. So, I did some digging to learn for myself, where all of this is coming from. I, too, found the one article you refer to in your post, and though it is showing iron toxicity, it isn’t addressing iron concentrations in different sugars, just the manmade nectar solution they provided to the birds in captivity, which contained 40 mg/kg of iron-that’s a lot when compared to nectar. The samples from plants and flowers contained some iron, but at much smaller amounts than the manmade solution (never greater than 20mg/kg). I know plants take iron up through the roots, and it doesn’t make sense to me, that organic or cane sugar would contain lethal doses of iron. I checked the packaging for nutritional facts, and found my sugar contains 0mg of iron. I think I can safely assume that, if there is iron, the amount is at low concentrations, or it would be listed. I would much rather feed my hummers organic cane sugar, because it should lack pesticides and any toxic processing chemicals used in refined sugars. The point to all of this is to use logic and reasoning when confronted with these challenges from others. The information is out there, and we are all responsible for knowing for ourselves, why we choose what we do when it comes to helping wildlife. Thank you for this post. I felt validated in my own conclusions upon reading the science papers I found this morning. By the way, I am Biomedical Scientist, so I read those research papers like they are my favorite magazine;)
Joybilee Farm says
I agree with you. When so much is politicized based on lobbying dollars, its very important to sort through the studies yourself and test to see if the conclusion are warranted.
Anyone happen to know if Zulka Morena Pure can sugar is okay to use? 100% Pure Cane sugar made from evaporating the juice of freshly harvest sugar cane.
Joybilee Farm says
Yes that would be fine to use for hummingbirds.
Dwayne Biggar says
Hummingbirds eat maple sap, so it stands to reason that maple syrup diluted to the proper concentration would be ok. I have no idea what that would be or the shelf life in the feeder.
Joybilee Farm says
Dwayne, Sugar Maple sap is 40:1 dilution to Maple syrup. Meaning 40 gallons of maple sap will yield 1 gallon of Maple syrup.
Linda Thompson says
Thank you so much for clarifying the organic sugar urban myth. I would not be surprised if Monsanto (Lucifer) contributes money to organizations willing to make that false claim.
Joybilee Farm says
Well said… ❤❤
I would agree ! Special interest by conagra gmo sugar beets.
Brenda Campbell says
I was concerned that the sugar water would not contain all the nutrients that hummers require, knowing that their diet also includes the small and sometimes irritating insects of summer. I assumed that the insects drowned in the nectar of the flowers. It would seem I have only one hummer at present time who shows up as soon as it’s light enough. It hangs out in the shrubs nearby, while digesting the feast of sugar water consumed. Still concerned about the protein source right now as it’s winter but will definitely be switching to organic sugar for future feasting. We drink filtered water anyway.
As a 37+ year veteran of teaching high school and college science (although mainly chemistry and physics), I too am thankful that you have taken the time to explain a bit of what is actually behind the “rules” on feeding hummers. I have a question, though. You did not mention powdered sugar as a source. I have never used it because of the added corn starch, but wondered if you had tested it.
Joybilee Farm says
I haven’t tried powdered sugar but I think the added cornstarch would make the solution cloudy and perhaps make it more prone to bacterial contamination.
Just the info I was looking for. Thank you very much!
michelle armstrong says
This is the link that led me to you. I love Marjory Wildcraft but am concerned that she is putting this out in the world without the proper science. I have been feeding Organic sugar to the hummers for years without any concern. We also are fortunate enough to have a wide variety of flowers that bloom all year long. I am super concerned that the Audubon Society is promoting bleached, GMO, pesticide/herbicide laden beet and cane sugar, which is the subsidized sugar mafia industry that poisons and enslaves human beings not to mention making people super sick with their product. Initially, what grabbed me was the 1-3 ratio vs 1-4, being a better mix and more identical to the nectar of flowers. I intuitively used the 1-3 in the winter due to the slower freezing time of the syrup. I also cover the feeders in old socks. 🙂 Thank you for easing my mind and heart.
Benjamin Reese says
Thank you for this article!!! It never made sense to me that every other form of sucrose would be bad for hummingbirds. Thank you for the break down and references!! Thank you thank you thank you!
Thank you. I couldn’t imagine why everyone says “not organic sugar”, it made no sense. I appreciate the explanation of how this misnomer probably got started.
I appreciate this thoughtfully researched article – thank you.
Colleen O'Brien says
One main point that should be put out there, maybe in another article, is that the sugar solution should be changed every 3 days to avoid the growth of mold. The feeder and components should be inspected and washed/ scrubbed regularly. ( I have tiny brushes for the little parts) The mold will kill them. If they aren’t coming to the feeder that often, just fill it half full.
Thank you Chris! I have organic sugar and would rather use that than look for cane sugar (to avoid GMO beet sugar). Hope i can bribe the little beauties enough to stick around and eat some of the hordes of fruit flies and soon the mosquitoes 🙂