‘Save’ the bees … or, did y’hear the one about the bee that walked into a bar? … (Friday 2nd July 2021)

Social media. A double-edged sword. Simultaneous blessing and curse. A great way to keep in touch / A murky swamp of misinformation … including an alarming array of inaccurate ‘how to save / help feed the bees’ misinformation masquerading as ‘advice’. From the well-worn ‘revive a tired bee with a teaspoon of sugar and/or honey & water’ cliche to this latest meme depicting a plate of grated apple, crawling with badly photoshopped honeybees, as supposed method of ‘supporting’ bees with a ‘natural’ sugar-infused drink. AKA the ‘bee bar’.

Thankfully I am not the only beekeeper screaming out from the keyboard: ‘NO! Please do NOT do this!’ in response to the profusion of enthused: ‘Oh, yes! What a brilliant idea – Yay! Help save the bees!

Fortunately, many have responded reasonably – and for the most part, rationally – to the news that putting out sugar/honey/grated fruit as bee food is a bad idea. A really bad idea. But there are those who just will not listen. They just have to be right. And/or they just like to argue … The main issue being the identity of the insects themselves, with a huge number of commentators insisting that they are not bees, but wasps. Because wasps are yellow and stripey … and all bees are all cute ‘n’ fat ‘n’ fluffy … right?!

Wrong. The insects in the meme are absolutely – without a doubt – honeybees. Not so cute, not so fat and nowhere near so fluffy. And yes, to the uninformed, they can look more like wasps than bees.

So, now we have that cleared up, on to the sugar-honey-fruit thing.

Firstly, the ‘revive a tired bee with sugar/honey and water’ trick.

This one is a bit of a ‘yeah but no but’.

White-tailed bumblebee drinking sugarwater (photo: Bumblebee Conservation Trust)

Yes, if you find a bumble bee (yes, cute, fat ‘n’ fluffy) looking tired and depleted, perhaps crawling around on the ground, seemingly unable to fly, it may well be that he/she is tired, thirsty and exhausted, and yes you can offer an energy boost by mixing sugar and water (equal amounts) on a teaspoon, in a bottle top or even direct onto the ground: the bee will drink and, refreshed and revived, may fly off and away. Be realistic, however: they may be crawling around on the ground because of injury, illness, or simply old age, in which case no amount of sugar/water is going to help them. However, the No1 point here is to only ever use sugar for this. Ordinary, granulated white sugar. Never – NEVER! – feed honey to bumblebees. Why not? For the simple reason that bumblebees do not naturally eat honey. Honey is made by honeybees – not bumblebees. Honey should therefore not be fed to bumblebees. Ever.

Which brings us back to the subject of honeybees. And those grated apples.

First up … to repeat a basic point: honeybees eat honey (which they make from nectar, the sugary juice of flowers which they collect by forage-feeding). They do not eat fruit (the end result of flowers being pollinated by foraging insects). Additionally, they have a natural aversion to alcohol … And guess what happens when you mix grated apple with water and leave it lying around … yup, that’s right, it ferments … as in, turns to alcohol. Meaning, your plate of grated apple in water will not work as food for bees. It will however attract wasps. Lots. Of. Wasps. (footnote: in unusual circumstances – for example, if they are starving and there are no flowers around, then yes, bees will chow down on whatever sugar source is available – including the junk-food options).

So … next obvious idea – what about sugar water?! Yes, I know, this seems like an ideal solution. But again, this is a really bad idea. Why? Well, again, the sugar mixed with water will ferment. Into alcohol. The main reason, however, is that honeybees naturally forage for their own food, collecting pollen (protein) along with nectar (sweet carbohydrate flower-juice) – travelling up to five miles visiting many different flowering plants along the way. They will, however, take the easy option – for example, if there happens to be a container of sugar-water lying around then they will happily rely on that instead.

Which of course prompts the seemingly obvious next-step solution: so, we can leave out honey as bee food … either neat, or mixed with water … right?

Wrong.

Honeybees make and eat their own honey. They do not (naturally) eat honey out of a jar off a supermarket shelf: honey that has been produced by other honeybees, perhaps several thousands miles away: honey that has been heated, treated, processed and blended with corn syrup and other cheap sugars as profitable human commodity. Not only is this type of honey devoid of nutritional content, it can potentially contain pathogens of bee disease that are harmless to humans but disastrous – even fatal – to bees. Bee diseases that may be present in the country where that honey was made – but not (yet) a problem here, in the UK, where that honey is sold. For this simple reason, we avoid feeding honey to bees.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the opening point: what can we do, if we want to ‘help feed’ and/or ‘save’ the bees?!

The answer is really quite simple.

Firstly, yes, go ahead and create your ‘bee bar’. A shallow container, with a few pebbles, marbles or decorative stones (for the bees to stand on, so they do not drown). But please, no sugar water. No honey. And certainly no grated apple. Instead fill it simply with clean, fresh water. Honeybees take water back to the hive, to dilute their stored honey, ready for use. Other insects too will come for a drink. Add fresh water daily, and occasionally wash the stones (a quick rinse and scrub in clean water, to prevent algae and other build-up).

Second … and this is the BIG one. Grow flowering plants. As wide range as possible, for as much of the year as you can. Bees (and other pollinating insects) forage on flowers: collecting nectar and pollen as food. However big or small your space – several acres of field, a modest back garden, a windowsill or a single small pot – this is, first and foremost, the most effective way to ‘help save’ the bees (and other pollinating insects).

No grated apple required.

1 Comment

  1. I think bumble bees do make honey, just in very small quantities. They have it in little pots in their nests. As you say, don’t give it to them though, as it can spread disease.

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