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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 that the bumblebee 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 a sugary drink.

A bumblebee resting on the ground.

Is the bumblebee really in trouble or just resting?

If you find a bumblebee that isn’t flying, it might just be resting, particularly if it’s a queen bumblebee in spring.

Research by Queen Mary University of London has shown that when queen bumblebees emerge from hibernation, they spend much of their time resting on the ground with very little flying or feeding. This research highlights that rest is a natural and potentially misunderstood part of the bumblebee lifecycle.

We can help bumblebees by leaving them alone to rest, and providing areas of long grass and undisturbed leaf litter so they have safe places to rest. If you find a bumblebee resting in a place where it might get squashed, and it’s safe for you to do so, you can gently move it to a more sheltered location or on to a nearby bee-friendly flower.

There are some occasions when bumblebees are genuinely in need of an energy boost, for example if a bee has been caught out in bad weather or has been on the ground for a long time. The research found that bumblebee queens rested for an average of about 30 minutes and sometimes up to almost 45 minutes. Any longer than that might mean the bumblebee needs help to find food, in which case you could gently move it to a nearby bee-friendly flower.

A spoonful of sugar-water.

Photo: Miranda Shephard

How to prepare sugar water

If there are no bee-friendly flowers around, mix 50/50 white sugar and water to give the bumblebee a one-off energy boost.

Simply offer a drop or two of sugar water, on a spoon or similar, to the bumblebee’s head and then allow it time to recuperate.

Please do not use brown sugar or honey. Brown sugar is harder for bumblebees to digest and honey can contain pathogens which might make the bumblebee ill.

If you are still unsure after reading this whether a bumblebee is in need of rescue, ask yourself these three questions:

Q1 Is the bumblebee in a place where it may be squashed?
Yes – if it’s safe for you, gently move it to a sheltered place.
No – Question 2

Q2 Has the bumblebee been in the same place for a long time (over 45min)?
Yes – Question 3
No – Give the bumblebee time to rest and recuperate, check back in 30-45 minutes

Q3 Are there any bee-friendly flowers around?
Yes – Gently move the bumblebee on to a flower and give it time and space to recuperate
No – Mix up 50/50 sugar solution and offer a couple of drops to the bumblebee, then give it time and space

Please note – providing bees with sugar water is only ever a temporary fix and should never become their main diet. That would be like us swapping three meals a day for three cans of fizzy juice.

Close-up of a Brown-banded carder bumblebee in the centre of a sunflower.

Photo: Tom Luck

A bumblebee’s diet

A bumblebee’s diet is made up of pollen and nectar from flowers which provide all the nutrients and energy that bumblebees need to thrive.

The best way to help bumblebees and other pollinating insects is to grow plenty of bee-friendly flowers, especially during the bumblebee season from March to October.

Take a look at our free Bee the Change planting guides to discover what you can grow to help bumblebees, with ideas for every size and type of outdoor space. Find out more