Hummingbirds are birds, but they behave kind of like insects. Some scientists even think of them as “feathered bees.” Like bees or butterflies, they fly from one flower bloom to another searching for nectar, a sweet liquid some flowers make.
When hummingbirds dip their long bills into flowers to drink nectar, they also pick up grains of pollen. Pollen is a fine powder made by plants that enables them to reproduce. Flowers need pollen from other flowers to make seeds, but they need help to get it. Such animal and insect helpers are called “pollinators.” Pollen that sticks to a hummingbird’s feathers and bill gets carried to the next flower it visits.
About 8,000 plants in North and South America depend on hummingbirds’ pollination services. Hummingbirds are most attracted to red, pink, yellow, and orange flowers with blooms as long and skinny as the birds’ beaks. Most species will feed from many kinds of flowers, but there are some specialized plant-hummingbird partnerships. These include hummingbirds with bills that are the perfect length or shape to fit a particular flower. The South American Sword-billed Hummingbird, for example, has a four-inch beak exactly suited to long passionflowers.
In this activity, kids pretend they're hummingbirds drinking nectar through a pipette or straw. But when they try to drink nectar, they discover they pick up some pollen along the way!
- Clear cups
- Pipettes or straws
- Food coloring
- Water pitcher
- Water source
The water is the nectar, and the food coloring is the pollen. What happens when a hummingbird visits different types of flowers?
- Demonstrate to your child how to use a pipette (push it into the water, squeeze, let go, pull out of the water). Helpful tip: Put down a cookie sheet, wax paper, or plastic table cloth since sometimes water can spill. Also, encourage responsible pipette use and set any boundaries needed to discourage shooting water outside of the cup. If you don't have a pipette (which comes in most science kits for kids), a straw also works just fine. After dipping the straw in the water, place your finger over the top and hold it there. The water will remain suspended in the straw.
- Fill two clear cups about halfway up with water. Add a drop of different food coloring to each cup. These are the flowers filled with nectar.
- Encourage your kid to pretend to be a hummingbird “drinking” nectar with the pipette or straw. Observe what happens they go from one cup to another. The colors will mix as the “hummingbird” transfers pollen between flowers.
This activity was adapted for the home from Audubon New Mexico's Camp Programs at the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary.