What Insects Do Hummingbirds Eat? A Quick Guide to Their Diet

Hummingbirds are fascinating creatures, known for their swift flight and unique ability to hover. Their primary diet consists of nectar from flowers, which provides them with much-needed energy. However, this sugar-rich diet is not their sole source of sustenance. In order to meet their protein and mineral requirements, hummingbirds also consume a variety of insects.

Some examples of insects that make up a significant portion of a hummingbird’s diet include aphids, gnats, and fruit flies. These small invertebrates are an essential source of protein for these birds. Hummingbirds partake in “gleaning” by picking insects directly off leaves and trees, as well as showcasing their aerial skills by catching insects mid-flight, according to Ask A Biologist.

To better understand hummingbird diets, let’s compare their feeding habits:

Nectar Consumption Insect Consumption
Provides energy Provides protein
Obtained from flowers Obtained from leaves, trees, or mid-flight
Sugar-rich Contains essential minerals

Diet of Hummingbirds

Nectar and Energy

  • Hummingbirds are known for consuming nectar from flowers
  • Nectar provides them with essential sugar for energy

Hummingbirds, sometimes called nature’s sugar addicts, primarily feed on nectar from flowers. This provides the necessary energy to power their exceptional flying abilities and maintain their high metabolism.

Protein and Insects

  • Insects are vital for a balanced diet
  • Examples of common insects eaten: ants, aphids, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes, and certain wasps

In addition to nectar, hummingbirds need proteins and minerals for a complete diet. They acquire these by consuming various insects such as ants, aphids, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes, and certain wasps.

Water Intake

  • Hummingbirds drink up to two times their body weight in water and nectar daily
  • They do not consume large quantities of standing water

Despite hummingbirds’ significant water and nectar consumption, they do not typically drink large quantities of standing water. Instead, most of their water intake comes from the nectar and insects in their diet.

Foraging Techniques

  • Gleaning: picking insects off leaves and trees
  • Aerial hunting: catching insects in mid-air

Hummingbirds use various foraging techniques to obtain their food. One method is called gleaning, in which they pick insects off leaves and trees. Additionally, these skilled fliers can also catch insects mid-air while in flight.

Comparison Table: Nectar vs. Insects

Food source Nutrient Benefits
Nectar Sugar Provides energy for flight and metabolism
Insects Protein Essential for growth, reproduction, and tissue repair
Minerals Contributes to overall health and development
Fats Vital for nutrient absorption and energy storage
Fiber Aids digestion and nutrient uptake

In conclusion, the diet of hummingbirds consists of sugary nectar for energy and insects for protein and essential nutrients. Various foraging techniques allow them to obtain the necessary resources to maintain their high-energy lifestyle.

Insects Consumed

Common Insects in Their Diet

Hummingbirds mainly feed on nectar for energy but also consume insects for protein and other essential nutrients. Some common insects in their diet include:

  • Flies: A great source of protein.
  • Ants: Contain essential nutrients for hummingbird well-being.
  • Gnats: Easy to catch and rich in nutrients.
  • Mosquitoes: Provide necessary amino acids.
  • Aphids: A popular and accessible food source for hummingbirds.
Insect Nutrient Value
Flies Protein
Ants Essential nutrients
Gnats Rich in nutrients
Mosquitoes Amino acids
Aphids Easily accessible, popular food source

Uncommon Insect Prey

Hummingbirds occasionally feed on less common insects like:

  • Spiders: Though not insects, they provide nutrients hummingbirds need.
  • Beetles: Can be challenging to catch but offer a good source of protein.
  • Mites: Rarely consumed, usually only when other food sources are limited.
  • Bees: Only consumed in specific situations, like when trapped in a spider’s web.
  • Larvae and eggs: Sometimes eaten, providing proteins and fats.

Some hummingbird species, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, may also feed on insects found in sap wells created by woodpeckers. Additionally, they may consume grasshoppers, crickets, and weevils, although these are less common in their diet.

Feeding Techniques

Gleaning and Hawking

Hummingbirds employ two primary feeding techniques to consume insects – Gleaning and Hawking. Here’s a brief comparison:

Technique Description
Gleaning Picking insects off leaves and trees
Hawking Catching insects mid-air while in flight

Gleaning involves hummingbirds using their vision and beak to capture insects from leaves, trees, and even sap wells. They may target insects such as ants, aphids, or beetles.

Hawking is a fascinating strategy where hummingbirds catch insects, like gnats, mosquitoes, and certain wasps, while flying. This showcases their agility and precision.

Using Vision and Beak

Some key features of a hummingbird’s vision and beak include:

  • Sharp vision to detect insects
  • Long, slender bill for reaching insects
  • Tube-like tongue for drinking nectar

Hummingbirds depend on their vision to locate insects like larvae and eggs hidden in bark crevices or on leaves. They use their beak to extract insects from these locations or even pluck them from spider webs.

In summary, hummingbirds are versatile pollinators and skilled insect hunters that use various feeding techniques like gleaning and hawking, as well as their excellent vision and beak, to consume a wide range of insects.

Feeding Adaptations

Long Bills and Tongues

Hummingbirds have long, slender bills and tube-like tongues that allow them to drink nectar from brightly-colored flowers. Their specialized bills help them reach the nectar deep inside flowers, while their unique tongues help extract it efficiently.

Strong Muscles

These small birds have strong muscles that enable them to hover in front of flowers while feeding. This foraging ability allows them to catch insects on the fly, supporting their high-energy metabolism. Examples of insects they eat for protein are small beetles, gnats, and spiders.

Differences between hummingbirds and other birds:

Feature Hummingbirds Other Birds
Bill Shape Long and slender Varies, often shorter and not specialized for nectar
Feeding Style Hovering in front of flowers Perching or standing on branches
Diet Nectar and insects Varies, from seeds to insects or other animals

Susceptibility to Predators

Although hummingbirds have adapted well to their feeding habits, they are still vulnerable to predators. Among these are cats, owls, and hawks lurking in the vicinity of their preferred feeding locations, like shrubs and flowers.

Pros of hummingbird adaptations:

  • Efficient extraction of nectar
  • Hovering ability for easy foraging
  • Able to catch insects for protein needs

Cons of hummingbird adaptations:

  • Susceptible to various predators
  • High-energy metabolism requires frequent feeding

By understanding the feeding adaptations of hummingbirds, we can appreciate how these small creatures have evolved to survive and thrive in their specific ecological niches.

Providing Food for Hummingbirds

Setting Up Hummingbird Feeders

To attract hummingbirds, birders should set up specialized hummingbird feeders in their backyards. Fill these feeders with a mixture of sugar water for a source of energy, using a nectar recipe, which contains 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Make sure to:

  • Change the sugar water every other day
  • Clean the feeders thoroughly to prevent mold growth

Offering Insect-rich Food

Hummingbirds also eat insects to supplement their diet with protein and minerals. To provide insects for hummingbirds, backyard birders can:

  • Set up a fruit plate with sliced melons, oranges, or even a fruit slurry
  • Offer canned fruit syrup to attract insects, which hummingbirds will eat
Method Pros Cons
Hummingbird feeders Easy to set up and maintain, attracts hummingbirds with sugar water Requires regular cleaning, may attract pests
Fruit plate/insect options Provides natural diet, attracts insects for hummingbirds to eat May also attract unwanted pests, requires frequent fruit replacement

In summary, backyard birders can make their yards more appealing to hummingbirds by providing both hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water and a source of insects through fruit plate offerings.

Migration and Habitat

Effect on Diet

Hummingbirds are well-known for their consumption of nectar from brightly-colored flowers, which provides them with energy to support their high metabolism 1. However, these small birds also eat insects for protein 2. During migration, the available insects and nectar sources can change, causing variations in their diet.

For example:

  • In their breeding habitats, they might consume more insects to support reproduction.
  • During migration, they may rely more on flower nectar for quick energy boosts.

Behavior

Migration also affects hummingbirds’ behavior. In one habitat, they may exhibit heightened territorial instincts, while in another, they are more cooperative and social.

Examples of behavior changes include:

  • Defending feeding territories during breeding season.
  • Forming small flocks when stopping at rich nectar sources.

Footnotes

  1. (https://www.nps.gov/articles/hummingbirds.htm)

  2. (https://www.nps.gov/band/learn/education/upload/hummingbird%20fact%20sheet.pdf)

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Hummingbird Nest

 

Subject:  Spider’s Nest??
Location:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
May 7, 2015 11:16 PM
Hello Daniel,
I need your help to identify a scary nest in my garden.  It is dangling from a trailing geranium that hangs from the rear deck.  Perfect ventilation!  At first, I thought it might become a small bird’s nest but it has not evolved for over a week.  I was bitten by a spider three weeks ago, in our bedroom (its was inside of my p j pants!)  As a result, I was on antibiotics and it took over two weeks to heal.
Then a while later, Gerard killed a small spider in the bedroom.  I kept the body and will show it to you when I see you next week.
Anyway, tell me what I am “nurturing” in my geranium!
Have a good night,
Monique

Hummingbird Nest
Hummingbird Nest

Good Morning Monique,
Your confusion is understandable.  Hummingbirds use spider’s webs to construct their tiny nests.  Perhaps this nest was abandoned, or perhaps the young Hummingbirds have already left the nest, or perhaps the eggs have not yet been laid.  Several years ago a Hummingbird built a nest in our large carob overhanging the street causing us to postpone tree trimming, but alas, the nest was abandoned.

Julian Donahue comments
And the BioSCAN person who picked up our Malaise trap samples last week spotted a similar nest on our cup of gold vine (Solandra maxima) overhanging the driveway–first hummingbird nest I’ve seen on our property. Probably an Allen’s Hummingbird, now our more common species.
Did a little checking and learned some new stuff about this bird: nesting season is October – May or June, and a single female may lay four or five clutches of eggs (two eggs per clutch) in a single season, often using the same nest over again. Like most moms, she does all the work.
These factoids and many others at: http://phoebeallens.com/facts.html
Julian

Letter 2 – The Hummingbird (this is the real thing and not the moth often mistaken for one)

 

30 May 2010
Last week I postponed the trimming of the carob tree because of a Hummingbird.  The female Hummingbird (I’m not sure what species because all Hummingbird females look similar)
built a walnut sized nest at the tip of a carob tree branch overhanging Killarney Avenue.

Hummingbird and Nest

Then she abandoned the nest, or did she?  I know hummingbirds have complex mating rituals where males high dive and stop creating a whistling sound in the tail feathers.  The hummingbird nest is composed of spider webs and lined with feathers.  I wonder if Anna’s Hummingbird has a symbiotic relationship with any spider species?  The female Anna’s Hummingbird may be the realtor in the family.  She finds the best territory near a food source and defends her nest and territory against all other females.  She may choose her mate based on how fast he flies and how loud he whistles his tail feathers.

Hummingbird on Nest

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

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  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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