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.

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. I will definitely feed sugar water to bees because your argument is only caring about beekepers and their business of making honey.
    I am not going to let a bee go tired or die.
    I care more about bees than someone who puts a drop of honey in their food.
    There are plenty of [less cruel] honey alternatives and I take the side of the bees.

    Reply
    • “your argument is only caring about beekepers and their business of making honey” – how can you possible reach that conclusion? Maybe you did not read the post. How can NOT helping bees provide more money for beekeepers???

      A healthy bee does not need your help. A dying bee is going to die even with your help.

      If you actually read the post you would know that your effort to feed the bee can actually kill the bees in the hive from pathogens you supply.

      Reply
  2. I’m a brand new beekeeper, and just found out that sugar water saved bees from the comments. I had noticed them crawling around on the ground too exhausted to fly back to the hive. I lifted them up on leaves to put them near the entrance, but most of them still don’t make it. They are not old bees, we had a massive ant attack that killed 1/2 the hive and these are the survivors.

    THANK YOU for this article. Without the comments below it that giving sugar water to the bees who can no longer fly can work, I would never have even thought of it! Going to put sugar water and a teaspoon next to my back door now.

    Reply
  3. Firstly, it is misleading to make light of how vital bees and other pollinators are to our own and every other creatures food chain. Everything is interconnected and without bees we would fast be in trouble. Only without bees would most people understand how much we and our food chain rely on them. Many bee species are in decline (as are a vast number of insects and other creatures, for a number of possible reasons). Getting a bee hive became the trend, and in London and Paris, we now have too many bees and not enough food for them. People need to concentrate hard on creating a wide variety of nectar sources, so that there is enough for them all. Obviously their natural sources of nectar is neccesary and best. However, helping any type of bee you think is in trouble is good. They may be dying, but they may be slowed down with cold and need nectar and warmth to revive them. You briefly made reference to this yourself. I always give them the benefit of doubt, and have saved many bees including honey bees with sugar water on a spoon and the warmth of my hand, and had done so for years before seeing that article. It is a pleasure to see the bees gain energy enough to fly off, when they had looked to be at deaths door. I would say your article is geared only towards silly well-meaning people who purposely feed bees with sugary bird baths instead of a garden full of flowers. So It is misleading of you to suggest feeding bees sugar water per se is bad, when obviously this helping hand has been seen to work by those who are thoughtful and patient enough to try. It’s common sense that should have been promoted in your article if it were neccesary at all.

    Reply
    • “bees and other pollinators are to our own and every other creatures food chain” – the article does not do that with respect to native pollinators. The problem is that when most people talk about such things they are talking about honey bees.

      Only about 1/3 of our food chain relies on bees – this is often overstated.

      Do you have any evidence that feeding bees is necessary or even helping native bees?

      Reply
    • I certainly did not get from this article that the author was suggesting feeding sugar water per se is bad. He was pretty specific about circumstances.

      Reply
  4. The problem with posts like yours Robert is that you get one tiny detail misinterpreted and it throws the whole post into doubt and leads to more confusion and misunderstanding. I would take you up on your comment where you say ‘Even if all the bees died, we would still have other food to eat’. That is only partly true, we would indeed have other food to eat, but not enough of it. One third of the food we eat comes from crops dependent on cross pollination from bees – and we are already struggling to feed the world on what is currently available now. Remove one third and starvation would become a major problem. It is also a fact that bees are certainly on the decline and Honey bee populations particularly are continuing to decline sharply, researchers say. Over the past 15 years, bee colonies have been disappearing in what is known as the “colony collapse disorder,” according to National Geographic. Some regions have seen losses of up to 90%, the publication reported. This has been because of the increased use of insecticides which is a major concern to the WHO. Get all the details accurately defined and the whole post becomes more rational and acceptable.

    Reply
    • But if we lost all bees and all other pollinators, then we would replace crops that require bees with ones that don’t need to be pollinated. That does not mean the amount of food we produce goes down.

      Honeybee populations have been steadily increasing – not declining. https://www.gardenmyths.com/honey-bees-dying/

      You need to review your facts.

      Reply
  5. my brain has just become loaded with creases with all the information I just received! My question is ‘What causes all my sparrows, jackets, cardinals, doves, squirrels to disappear? This is the first year nothing is coming to my feeders! I see a couple of stray cats can they do that much damage even though they can’t reach the feeders?

    Reply
  6. Your claim that feeding bees sugar water results in “watered down honey” is factually incorrect. Bees will take the sugar water back to their hive just as they would nectar (which, fresh out of the flower, is much thinner than honey). Once there, the nectar or sugar water will be placed in an open wax cell until enough water has evaporated out of it to make it honey consistency. Then and only then is the cell capped with wax to prevent further evaporation.

    That being said, “honey” made by giving bees a steady diet of sugar water is pale and bland and void of the nuances one gets from different natural sources of nectar. Beekeepers will sometimes feed sugar water to their bees in times of drought or in late fall if the colony hasn’t stored enough resources to last the winter.

    Reply
  7. I’m not claiming “we’ll die in four years” is accurate, but you saying “Even if all the bees died, we would still have other food to eat.” sounds like you think the argument is about honey. The claim that humanity needs bees is nothing to do with honey, it’s to do with them pollinating our actual food sources.

    Reply
    • No idea why you think I was talking about honey.

      Most food we eat does not require pollination, so without bees we still have lots of food.

      Reply
      • This stance is very problematic and quite egoistical, besides just plain wrong. We live in a complex interdependent network. To say that “even if all bees die we still have lots of food” is highly disregarding of the delicate ecological balance we need to survive, and for other species to survive as well – and there are enough threats to this balance already. It’s also about our food but not *only* that. Plants themselves need the pollinators to keep existing; other animals need these plants, and so on. Can you really so easily dismiss an entire species and their important part in this planet’s organism? Shame.

        Reply
        • When I say “even if all bees die we still have lots of food” – it is simply a statement of fact. I said it to correct the misinformation being spread.

          I made no comment about its effect on the environment or ecology, or did I recommend such action. You have taken a simple statement of fact and turned it into a mountain of misinterpretation.
          Shame on you!

          Reply
  8. I am not a bee keeper but my personal opinion I don’t think that bees needs our help to survive. Let nature take it place, it’s when human interfere with nature usually creates problem same thing with birds they don’t need our help to survive God’s takes care of them the way he takes care of us.

    Reply
    • I disagree.
      Why do people help ducks cross the road?
      its the same reason why some humans wish to help out a struggling insect.
      If you believe in a loving god, then you would understand that this love is also within humans.
      It is purely up to the individual as to how far they extend this love.
      For me and others, we enjoy helping those less fortunate.
      and for some people they prefer to say: “let nature take its course”.
      If a lion attacks a man, you would soon find people running to help or shoot the animal.
      If people truly want nature to take its course, then they would allow the lion to eat the human.
      But we dont.

      Reply
    • Well, people exist, so there’s one difference. And, people are the cause of most of nature’s problems. So if some people try to help, done properly, it is a good thing. We are raising global temperatures which also will be a big problem that Santa, I mean, god, won’t fix.

      Reply
  9. Robert, you wrote “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. ” It’s hard to envisage such a thing since bees will not cap a cell until the water is around 17.8% by volume. So any light syrup-based honey is certainly not watered down with water.

    Reply
  10. Beekeepers in America always feed bees with sugar water. How do I know? I’m a beekeeper and have beekeeper friends—some that have been beekeeping longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m 32! I study beekeeping at University. The title of this piece is just unfortunate. I’ve brought lots of exhausted bees back to life with a spoon full of 1:1 sugar water. It has typically been on very hot days.
    I will say however not to leave sugar water feeders for bees out all the time, as they can also attract wasps, yellow jackets, and things that may kill the bees. By leaving a feeder out, you may also rob nature of its natural pollinators. Anyone wanting to just feed the bees as a continuous thing, and safely, look into the various flowers they like.
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • I have love honeybees since I was very young.But I don’t love them getting in my salt pool.I don’t mind them getting the water,but I do get tired of dipping them out when they fall in.I really hate dipping them out when they’re dead.Is there some way I can’t keep them away? Thanks

      Reply

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