Don’t Feed Sugar Water to Exhausted Bees

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Robert Pavlis

The bees are in trouble again. If you see one that is exhausted give them a sugar-water mixture which will give them the energy boost they need to get back to the hive. You probably saw this advice on Facebook where it was first posted, and then shared thousands of times. You have just experienced the birth of a new gardening myth.

The image below shows part of the original Facebook post.

Around the middle of July, 2018, the BBC asked Facebook to remove the post since it was fake news, and thankfully, they complied. In fact, I had a hard time finding a copy for this post.

What did Sir David Attenborough really say? Is it a good idea to feed sugar to bees? Do bees get exhausted and need our help? All good questions that will be discussed in this post.

Facebook fake news - Don't feed sugar water to bees
Facebook fake news – Don’t feed sugar water to bees

A Garden Myth is Born

I don’t know who started the myth, but someone created it on their Facebook page – anyone can do that. They then posted it on some public sites and people shared the post. After all, everybody cares about the bees and we don’t want to die in 4 years.

Growing Great Tomaotes, by Robert Pavlis

The post went viral. I saw it on several gardening groups and right away people posted that they would do this – it is the least they could do to save the bee. People even posted pictures of bees drinking from spoons containing water and sugar.

I wonder if the author of this myth is sitting in front of their computer, laughing their head off?

One of the problems with this post is that they included the name, Sir David Attenborough, a well known broadcaster and naturalist. The BBC looked into the matter and determined it was all fake news, so they asked Facebook to take down the post. They not only removed the original post, but many of the shared posts have also disappeared.

Thank you Facebook.

As far as I can tell Sir David Attenborough never said anything about bees and feeding them sugar.

What Is The Harm in a Little Fun?

It seems like no big deal, but it is more serious that you might think.

Millions of people have now seen the information and they believe you should feed bees. Very few will see my post and other news items that dispel the myth. They will go on believing the myth, and for next 100 years they will be telling their children and grand children to feed the bees. You can’t kill a myth once it starts.

Does feeding bees with sugar water do any harm? Yes it does. I’ll discuss several issues in more detail below, but a serious problem is that some people can’t follow instructions. They have morphed the myth into a better solution; feed the bees with honey and that can be deadly for bees.

Are Bees Dying?

The post says “In the last 5 years the bee population has dropped by 1/3”. Which bee population are they talking about? Honey bees? Native bees?

Honey bee populations have not declined over the last 5 years. There were larger loss than normal this past winter in North America, but that was due to the cold weather. Overall honey bee populations are on the rise.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Native bee populations are probably down, but we don’t have data to reach any conclusion.

The data used in the post is completely fabricated.

YouTube video

 

Without Bees We Die in Four Years

Honey bees are not dying – the numbers are on the increase, and since they are farmed animals we can make more new hives without too much trouble.

Even if all the bees died, we would still have other food to eat. This 4 year thing is nonsense.

Do Bees Need To Be Fed?

The proper way to feed bees - use flowers
The proper way to feed bees – use flowers

Beekeepers do feed their hives in the middle of winter if the stored food in the hive runs out, and they do use sugar solutions. But this is done because there are no flowers open at this time of year to feed the bees. They don’t normally feed sugar water to bees during the rest of the year.

If the bees’ foraging trips are so exhausting don’t you think that beekeepers would have a bowl of sugar water waiting for them at the hive?

They don’t need an extra feeding of sugar.

Why Do Some Bees Look Exhausted?

There are lots of reports of bees just sitting. No movement and no flying – they look exhausted. They must need an energy boost!

Bees don’t live forever. Their lifespan depends on the type of bee and their role in life. Worker honey bees that are born in the spring only live for 6 weeks because they work hard collecting pollen and nectar. Male bumblebees only live a couple of weeks. A bee that is near the end of its life does not fly around very well.

That bee that looks exhausted may need a rest, but there is a very good chance that it is dying. Feeding it won’t change that.

One Beekeeper put it this way,”Bees can and will die from exhaustion, but making sugary food sources available to save lethargic bees may be doing more damage than good.”

Can a Little Sugar Water Harm The Bees?

Don't feed sugar water to bees
Don’t feed sugar water to bees

Bees don’t need to be fed, but feeding them a bit of sugar water from a spoon won’t do any harm provided this is a one time thing. The problem is that people have expanded on the myth. If a bit of sugar water for an exhausted bee is good, then a lot of sugar water for all the bees must be better. People are starting to leave out bowls full of the stuff, or even adding it to their bird baths.

Beekeepers warn that this can have serious consequences. Bees take short cuts. If they can get sugar easily from a bowl rather than visiting a hundred flowers, they will do that. Upon returning to the hive they’ll tell their buddies and the rest of the colony to do the same. Before you know it, you have hundreds of bees.

Not a big deal you say, but the bees store this sugar water in the hive along with the honey. They effectively make watered down honey. That is not good for the bees and nobody wants to buy watered down honey. Beekeepers are asking you not to do this.

What is Wrong With Feeding Honey To Bees?

Honey can contain spores of a bacteria called Paenibacillus which causes AFD (American Foul Brood disease). It is deadly to bees. The honey you feed to the bee will be taken back to the hive. If your honey contains this pathogen, there is a good chance it will infect the whole hive. In Australia it is illegal to feed honey to bees.

The treatment for this disease is to burn the whole hive, including the bees.

The disease is fairly rare, but it does happen. Honey should never be fed to bees in your garden.

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

97 thoughts on “Don’t Feed Sugar Water to Exhausted Bees”

  1. 50 years ago I was told to feed sugar water to bees, so this is not a new myth. I no longer do it, now I’ve been told otherwise. The bee usually dies.

    Reply
  2. I think that opinions are like bee-holes, yes, we all have them. In the 20 minutes I’ve spent reading all the opinions, as well as a few facts (which even are debated), about 10-15 bees died in my sugar water. I assumed that 1/4 inch deep sugar water was ok because it was in a small Tupperware type lid and the rim was only a few inches away. Fact.. their deaths were completely the fault of myself, an ignorant do gooder. Opinion… people are gonna feed bees so why dont you write about how to do it safely.

    Reply
  3. Bees are amazingly smart. I find that when there is available forage, they ignore the syrup feeders…

    So I do not buy the premise of this article.

    Yes I keep bees….. and I feed them until they no longer visit the feeders….. then if the hive inspection shows low stores I put it out again, this often happens in the summer.

    Reply
  4. No one is talking about the eliphant in the room and it’s the government allowing banned insectacides on the plants that are making the bees sick an is not rocket science that the bees pollinate our food and without them we would have to find other ways to feed ourselves regardless if it takes 4 years or ten

    Reply
    • 1) this post is not about pesticides
      2) “the government allowing banned insectacides” – is clearly false. If they are banned they can not be used.
      3) 2/3 of our food is not pollinated.

      Reply
  5. As a beekeeper living in the frozen land of Wisconsin(and many have weighed in here), sometimes, if the hives are light on honey, we do feed sugar syrup in spring and fall. Winter is long here and if they don’t have enough reserves in the hive, they certainly will struggle or die out. Feeding an exhausted bee in the summer with sugar water or worse, leaving out sugar water for bees in the summer would cause many problems, especially if you have several hives. Warm weather feeding almost always creates robbing issues here where stronger honey bee hives will rob out weaker hives. It’s a sad thing to see. The thing I find, that many people seem to overlook, is that honey bees need lots of water when they are working the flowers in summer. I question whether or not an “exhausted” bee is short on sugar resources or just water on hot days. I find my bees in droves in our pet water, duck pond and compost (moist) on hot days, getting water for themselves and to work in the hive. People would do well to support all pollinators (native and honeybees) by leaving flowering “weeds” to grow on the margins of their property, limit pesticide (and possibly herbicide) usage and providing a water source for them in the summer. You are just asking for trouble if you put out sugar water….

    Reply
  6. I’m no beekeeper, I’m probably the Village idiot so chances are I already accidentally poisoned the bees that suddenly out of the blue started to buzz through my birdbaths. It started with two in the morning, later that afternoon there were 4 and by 16:00 there were about 20. So yeah my curiosity got the better of me and started watching them. While watching them for a few days I started wondering if there was something I could do to spoil these little brats. So I googled what I could do and sugar water popped up. So immediately (yesterday) I sprung up and made them some. They definitely didn’t trust me at first, but throughout the next day I realized the container was completely empty. Got excited so obviously I’d offer my guests another. Barely put it down and suddenly 200 bees all around it. They didn’t even care that I was standing there. But the speed on which they emptied the second container suddenly I’m wondering if it really is a good idea to do this, so again turned to google and your article grabbed my attention. I understood it but then the comments left me with more questions. By reading it I started thinking about my neighborhood and my community’s behavior if putting it out is not perhaps a kindness? I live a little out of town. Our area has gone through a ‘boom’, people from rural communities are moving in and always the first thing they’re doing is removing trees, grass and all things needed for these bees (those new ‘neighbors’ are very anti gardening). We just came out of a 8 year long drought and it’s probably why I’m seeing them so far from where they should be all of a sudden (with sudden rainfalls)? If bees fly 2 miles and I know for 4 miles there’s probably nothing for them, would it be fine then to assume putting out sugar water is helping somehow? Just yesterday I read a post on Facebook someone from my town asking how to kill bees, they’re facing threats from everywhere. If sugar water is not the answer what would you suggest? I have trees, they do visit them often but with everything else threatening them in just the 4mile radius around me, I feel they need help. Preferably not the kinda help that kills them? So all these beekeepers what would you suggest? Doing nothing is not exactly the answer I’d want cause like I said my area alone is a good enough reason why I should do something.

    Reply
  7. As a beekeeper, I feed my bees during the winter. During the winter, the flowers are gone and if the bees did not save enough, you will quickly get a dead hive with hundreds of dead bees. Honey bees have been domesticated over the last several thousand years so these bees need humans to stay alive. There are so many factors that need to be considered. All types of animals and insects can rob the hive and take their honey supply. If they don’t have a food supply, the bees will die. Bees usually fly a two mile radius to get pollen and nectar. If there are no flowers in a two mile radius, the bees will die. Modern farming and suburban sprawl is creating vast sections of land without wild flowers, and this land is unsuitable for honey bees. Putting bee hives near farmland or near the suburbs and not feeding them in the winter only results in a dead hive. There are too many variables involved to make a general statement to not feed the bees. Not to offend anyone, but you have to evaluate the situation to determine if the bees need to be fed or not.

    Reply
    • Who but beekeepers would need to “feed bees”? Also it says right there in the article. “Beekeepers do feed their hives in the middle of winter if the stored food in the hive runs out…”

      Reply
  8. This is absurd..people if you wanna feed a single tired bee do it,absolutely not gonna adulterate honey.#Facts.Don’t put open feeders out for all of the bees though such as community feeders because then you could contaminate honey and you could spread viruses to the bees,but helping a tired bee is not hurting bees,honey or any other retarded gripes people are saying. BTW one of biggest “Natural ” Beekeepers in USA sells frame feeders to Feed sugar syrup..go figure.

    Reply
  9. As a beekeeper and a naturalist this is my 2 cents based off personal research, experience and experience of other beekeepers; I believe that it is extremely important to do all we can to save all forms of life from extinction to avoid devastating chain reactions. To help bees we need to plant more pollen and nectar producing flowers, use less chemicals, insecticides, and pesticides, and provide water sources for bees on hot days. Most of the weeds that people are so obsessed w destroying are some of the biggest food sources for bees. Providing open sugar water feeding stations for bees can cause a multitude of issues which is why even beekeepers don’t do it. We feed bees sugar water in a feeding box inside the hive after we take their honey in the fall, Sometimes midwinter and spring to replenish their food stock. They would not need this help otherwise unless your area is low in nectar producing plants, in which case native bees would not thrive and your feeding beekeepers bees, beekeepers probably would prefer you help by providing necessary nectar and pollen sources and not using chemicals then feeding their bees sugar water. If you let the sugar water ferment or mildew it makes them sick and crystallized sugar water also can be harmful. In reference to other commenters; bees die in large water sources like pools because they are attracted to salt and mineral sources and they drown easily if they don’t have things to stand on. A bird bath w Lots of large pebbles works great.

    Reply

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