Should I feed bumblebees sugar-water?
The simple answer is only as a last resort, when there are no bee-friendly flowers around and when you are certain the bee is not just resting. There are a few things to consider before making an informed decision about whether or not a bumblebee really is in need of rescue.
First and foremost a bumblebee’s diet is made up of pollen and nectar from flowers, so the best way to help bumblebees and other pollinating insects is to grow plenty of bee-friendly flowers, especially during bumblebee season (between March and October). Pollen and nectar contain all of the essential nutrients bumblebees need, as well as providing protein for growth and carbohydrates for energy.
If you find a bumblebee which appears to be struggling, it may be that it is just resting, particularly if the bee is a queen in early spring. Recent research from Queen Mary University of London has shown that bumblebee queens spend the majority of their time resting on the ground between very short dispersal flights, with very little feeding. This research suggests that rest is an underappreciated part of the bumblebee life-cycle and that providing areas of long grass and undisturbed leaf-litter in early spring is important to help ensure bumblebee queens have adequate cover. If you find a bumblebee queen resting in the road or on a pavement, when it is safe to do so, you could gently move it to a more sheltered location or on to a nearby bee-friendly flower.
There are some occasions where bumblebees are genuinely in need of an energy boost, for example if a bee has been caught out in bad weather or has been grounded for a long time. The above mentioned study found that bumblebee queens rested for an average of about 30 minutes and sometimes up to almost 45 minutes. Anything over that could mean the bee is in trouble, in which case you may want to help move it to a nearby bee-friendly flower.
If there are no bee-friendly flowers around, sugar-water (50/50 white sugar and water) can be used as a one-off energy boost to provide the bee with the carbohydrates it needs to fly. It is not advisable to use honey as this can contain pathogens (which is why honeybee keepers never feed shop-bought honey to their bees) or brown sugar as it is harder for bees to digest. Simply offer a drop or two of sugar solution up to the front end of the bee on a teaspoon or an upturned drinks cap in a sheltered place and allow the bee time to recuperate.
If you are still unsure after reading this whether a bumblebee is in need of rescue, ask yourself these three questions:
- Is the bumblebee in a place where it may be trodden on or ran over?
Yes – When safe, move it to a sheltered place.
No – Question 2
- Has the bee been in the same place for a long time (over 45min)?
Yes – Question 3
No – Give the bee time to recuperate, check back in 30-45 minutes
- Are there any bee-friendly flowers around?
Yes – Gently move the bee on to a flower and give it time to recuperate
No – Mix up 50/50 sugar solution and offer a couple of drops to the bee in a sheltered place
Please note – providing bees with sugar water is only ever a temporary fix and should never become their main diet (that would be like a human swapping three meals a day for three cans of fizzy juice). Nectar and pollen from flowers contain the nutrients bees need to thrive, as well as the energy they require to survive. It is also important for bumblebees to be outside to complete their life-cycle so don’t be tempted to take them inside.