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.

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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.

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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.

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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. Great informative article, thank you !
    Very disappointing that the original shared post was attributed to Sir Attenborough.
    I would query the human race perishing within four years comment. You dismissed it out of hand, saying there are “other things to eat”.
    The loss of pollinators is the basis behind that argument, not that humans are desperate honey munchers.

  2. Thank You so much for your wisdom😊
    I am a newbie
    When I picked up my bees they told me
    “Feed, feed, feed”

  3. Well now I’m totally confused. YES OR NO????? Processed sugar I know to be extremely unhealthy for all organisms so I have serious doubts as to using it to revive bees. I just lay a wet organic banana skin next to tired-looking bees

    • The statement “Processed sugar I know to be extremely unhealthy for all organisms” is completely wrong. It is the common advice you see from some groups, but they don’t understand basic chemistry or biochemistry. Without sugar we would all be dead.

  4. I have hummingbird feeders that have sugar water in them and the bees drink from them a lot. How do I keep them away from them?

  5. Hi. I live in the UK, in the East Midlands. This year I’ve noticed that several honey bees have come into the house and just died on the windowsills. I have no idea why this is happening. Do you have any idea what might be causing this? The weather doesn’t seem to be a factor, as it’s been quite variable lately. Thank you.

  6. Your headiine is awful. Feeding one tired bee sugar water us fine. Your headline does not reflect that. Now you are spreading myths.

    • I have rescued a few bees with sugar water on a teaspoon. I’ve also brought individual bees inside the house to warm up in a cold spell (under a strainer) and given them sugar water–and let them go when they start flying…hoping they can get back to their hive before becoming cold again.

  7. This afternoon I put a bee on a flower that was grounded, 2 hours later on my way back home, I looked and it was still clung on bless it, I took it home, mixed up sugary water, and placed droplets on small flowers, he fed, buzzed and flew, I let it oudoors it was amazing, so yes it was a tired cold bee I think.

  8. It’s hot and dry in the Dallas Texas area in the summer. And I’ve seen lot’s of honey bees flying to and from the drinking water I leave out for the critters. So in that kind of weather, just having plain water may be helpful for them.


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