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  1. We all know bees eat honey.  But do they? 

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    There are approximately 280ish different types of bee in the UK.  Only one of them is the honey bee.  26 are bumble bees and the others are all solitary bees. 

    All bees sup nectar from the flowers they visit.  This gives them the energy boost they need for flying. 

    Female bees will collect nectar and pollen to take back to their colony/nest. 

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    Female solitary bees build a cell, provision it with nectar and pollen, lay an egg and then seal the cell.  She will then build another cell.  The egg will hatch, eat the nectar and pollen and then pupate before emerging the following year to continue the cycle.  The female bee only lives a few weeks and doesn’t make honey.

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    Bumble bee queens will collect and store some nectar in little “wax pots” before they start to lay their first batch of eggs.  This nectar helps to feed the queen bee whilst she is incubating her eggs.  Once the nectar runs out she will need to leave her eggs whilst she collects more.  When her first batch of bees emerge they are all girl worker bees.  Some of them will stay in the nest with the queen bee and some will take over the foraging duties, bringing nectar and pollen back to the hive to feed the growing colony of bumble bees.  Bumble bees store a small amount of nectar for a short time, but they don’t make honey.

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    The only bees who make honey are honey bees.  Why do they make honey?  Well they are the only bees who don’t die out, or hibernate during the winter.  During the winter the colony is about 10,000 strong.  This number of bees is needed to keep the colony warm during the winter months.

    During the winter months the colony clusters and the bees on the outside will “shiver” to generate heat and to keep the cluster warm.  This takes up a lot of energy at a time when the honey bees are unable to leave the hive to collect more food i.e. nectar.  During times of plenty any nectar collected which isn’t needed for immediate use is stored for when it is needed.

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    Nectar is mostly water and sugars with some amino acids, vitamins and a few minerals thrown in for good measure.  Nectar can be up to 80% water.  Water and sugars will ferment into alcohol if stored for more than a short time.  Bees can also suffer from bad tums, and if they used fermenting nectar they would get a bad tum.  To stop the nectar from fermenting the moisture content needs to be reduced to less than 20% moisture.  To do this the bees spread the nectar out in cells in the hive, bees in that area fan their wings to evaporate the moisture.  Once the moisture content is below 20% (usually around 18%) the honey (as it is now) will keep until it is needed.  Well it would if it were not for the fact that being hygroscopic honey draws moisture into itself.  So the clever little bees cover each cell containing honey with a thin coating of beeswax.  Being waterproof the beeswax stops the water getting into the cell and “spoiling” the honey.

    Before using the honey the honey bee needs to dilute the honey.  To do this they mix it with a small amount of salvia which they work into the honey, before sucking up the resulting thinner liquid.

    Honey bees are also workaholics.  All the time the weather is favourable and there is nectar available they will collect it and store it.  On average a colony of honey bees needs 40 pounds of honey to see them through the winter, but most colonies will collect and store far in excess of that amount.  This is the surplus the beekeeper can take for his/her own use.  Although some beekeepers will take as much honey as possible and feed back sugar water, many beekeepers will only take what the bees don’t need.

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    So if honey is just concentrated nectar it must be better to feed bumble bees diluted honey?  Well actually no because honey can spread diseases amongst bees.

    When bees (of all types) collect nectar from the flowers to take back to their nests/colonies they suck it up into their honey crop.  This is a pre-stomach.  Almost like an inflatable balloon inside the bee which is used to carry the nectar.  Once back at the nest/hive the nectar is regurgitated. 

    At the honey bee hive it is passed from bee to bee as enzymes are added and the drying out process is started.  If the bees happen to have one of the bee diseases the pathogens or spores can also be added to the nectar along with the enzymes.

    Whilst honey bee diseases cause no harm to humans, honey is well known to spread diseases between colonies and beekeepers are advised not to feed their bees honey from another colony. 

    Whilst no research has been done on the spread of disease to bumble bees by feeding them diluted honey, it is known that some of the honey bee diseases can be passed to bumble bees.  The logical assumption can therefore be made that feeding honey to bumble bees could very well introduce them to a disease which they would otherwise not have come into contact with.

    Whilst a weak sugar and water solution is “empty” food for a bee as it contains only carbohydrates and has no other nutritional value, it is better to feed a struggling bumble bee sugar water.  The sugar water will give the bee the energy it needs to get on with the business of collecting food for the colony without risking passing on disease which could be taken back to the colony.

    Sugar water should never be left out for bees to find though - please check out my previous blog  "Why Feeding Sugar Water to Bees is a Bad Idea"

  2. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I really despair at the damage we are doing to the world.  The problems the world faces seem insurmountable.  It feels like anything we can do is just a drop in the ocean and it’s all too late. 

    The thing is nature really is truly wonderful and has an amazing ability to bounce back.

    For years I have walked my dogs over a brown field site close to my home.  The same brown field site has also been used by dirt bikes at weekends.  To begin with this wasn’t really a problem as bikers and dog walkers gave each other space to use the area.  Over time though the attitude of some of the bikers gave the others a bad name.  It no longer felt safe as bikes would tear past too close.  Then the bike tracks extended to the neighbouring common and it seemed that the whole area turned into a race track at weekends. 

    Bikes were burned over on the site, then last year a few cars too.  Weekends the sound of the bikes tearing around could be heard all day long.  When I’d walk on the neighbouring common after a weekend my heart would break at the damage caused by the tracks torn into it, broken tree branches and the lack of respect for nature.

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    Then earlier this year another attempt was made to stop the bikes, CCTV was installed where the bikes had accessed the site and suddenly they were gone.  Weekends became more peaceful, but what has been amazing is the difference in the site just a few short months have made. 

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    Earlier this year the area was large areas of churned up bare earth which became a mud bath when it rained.  There were some large bramble patches, but the only wildflowers were clinging to the edges of the area.

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    Now seeds which had remained dormant have germinated changing the area completely

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    The bike tracks have almost vanished under an explosion of wildflowers and grasses

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    Crickets and grasshoppers can be heard in the tall golden grasses

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    Bees gather up the abundant pollen 

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    Whilst butterflies dance amongst the flowers

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    Hoverflies and other insects have moved in to take advantage of the new food source

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    Even with the lack of rain we have had over the last few months the whole area is literally humming and buzzing with life

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    I find it incredible that just being left alone for a short while the area has changed completely bringing back insects, and I’m sure impacting larger wildlife as a result.  The insects pollinating the flowers will mean more seeds for next year and I look forward to seeing how the site changes over the next few years

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    Nature really does know how to heal itself if we just give it a chance.

    Imagine if we were to give it a helping hand . . .

  3. For the last few years during the summer I’ve seen a post or two about making bee feeders.  In response I have done a post advising that this is not a good idea for a number of reasons.  Usually this post has been seen by, at best, a few 100 of my followers. 

    This year I started to see a lot of information about making bottle top feeders for bees and again I did a facebook post in response.  By the end of the first day the post had been seen by 1,500.  Within in 10 days it had been seen by 100,000, and now my original post has now been seen by more than 600,000 people to date. The text of my post has also been copied and shared and keeps popping back up in my newsfeed in the various groups I follow so I have no idea how many people have seen the post.  Messages have been coming in so thick and fast from people asking questions as a result of that post my phone has developed a stutter!!!!

    I decided it might be a good idea to expand on the information in that post and explain in more detail some of the points raised so as not to keep repeating myself.

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    There is a lot of misinformation circulating social media advising people to make bee bars and leave sugar water out to "help" keep bees hydrated or to help the declining bee population.  I’ve even seen a headline that states sugar water will save humanity.

    A lot the posts shared advice which seemed to come from social media posts by Sir David Attenborough.  These posts told people how to rescue a struggling bee with a little sugar water and urged people to share the information to save bees. 

    I now understand that Sir David Attenborough doesn’t like social media, doesn’t use social media, and the pages were fake pages which have since been taken down.  It’s very unfortunate that some of the more mainstream media had also seen these posts, misread or misunderstood the information and started urging people to help bees by leaving sugar water out for them.  I’ve heard that This Morning and a news programme have also advised viewers to leave out sugar water for bees.

    It’s wonderful that so many people have wanted to help bees, but leaving sugar water out for bees is a really bad idea for a number of reasons.

    1.  Firstly, and I think probably the MOST IMPORTANT reason for most people is that if you are within 3 miles of some hives (and most people are) if honey bees find the sugar water they're going to think it’s a great source of easy food, go back to the hive and recruit more bees to come and collect the "food "and before you know it you'll have 1,000s and 1,000s of honey bees descending on your garden/balcony - a very scary sight. This is known as robbing and as a beekeeper I've seen this a couple of times - once started it is impossible to stop until the source of the "food" has gone.  Those bees will be quite desperate to get this food back to the hive as quickly as possible before another colony finds it.  If another colony does find it fighting can break out amongst the bees.

    It genuinely worries me, especially with the summer holidays coming up, that families will make bee bars with the intention of showing their children some cute bumble bees and end up with this situation in their gardens – it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

    2.  Bees are really good at finding what they need and what they need is nectar and pollen.  Sugar water is full of empty carbohydrates whereas nectar contains amino acids, vitamins and other trace elements.  Bees also need pollen as this provides the protein element of their diet.  Sugar water is basically “junk” food for any insect.  Just like us, good in an emergency, but not good as a long term diet.

    3.  Sugar water can spread disease between bees visiting bee feeders.  Whilst it’s true the bees could pick up the diseases whilst visiting flowers its far less likely than if the bees are using a bee feeder.  Flowers produce miniscule amounts of nectar.  On the other hand a milk bottle top can contain the equivalent of more than a 1,000 flowers.  Imagine how much space a 1,000 flowers would take up.  Bees have to travel from flower to flower to collect the nectar.  Have you noticed that when bees are visiting flowers they fly around and then seem to choose at random a flower to visit?  This actually isn’t random at all.  Bees have smelly feet – or rather they leave a chemical imprint on the flowers they visit.  This alerts other bees that this flower has recently been visited and therefore won’t be worth visiting again until it refills with nectar.  Different flowers “refill” at different rates.  Bees get to learn how long this is for each flower.  Not only does this save a bee from visiting a flower recently visited it means bees are not landing on the same flowers.  However, on a bee feeder bees are constantly landing in the same spot and diseases can easily spread.

    3.  Honey bees will store this as honey in the hive. Do you remember the story a few years ago that bees were making green honey?  Turns out the bees had found their way into a syrup vat at the local M&M factory! 

    If bees do store sugar syrup as honey the beekeeper may unknowingly end up extracting and selling this as honey later in the year. You don't want to buy sugar syrup and the beekeeper doesn't want to be prosecuted for selling a product which isn't honey.

    4.  Sugar water is also an easy food source for social wasps.  Early in the year they will ignore it as they will be busy hunting for insects to take back to their nests. In return the brood produces a sweet liquid to feed the adult wasps.  Adult wasps are unable to eat the insects they hunt. Later in the year there is no more new brood being reared and the adult wasps starve.  This is the time of year when wasps start to become a real nuisance – not something you want to attract with sugar water.

    5.  If bees find an easy source of food in sugar water they will use this instead of visiting flowers for their carbohydrate needs.  If the bees aren’t visiting so many flowers this will affect pollination.  Not only could this affect food being produced, it could also affect the wildflowers and garden flowers and reduce the amount of nectar available to bees next year.

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    To answer some of the questions this post raised:-

    1.  Don’t beekeepers feed bees sugar water? 

    Well yes they do sometimes when the bees haven’t enough of their own food, often because of bad weather when the bees haven’t been able to forage.  However, when feeding honey bees beekeepers place the food in a feeder inside the hive so it can only be accessed by the bees in that colony.  This is done in the evening when the bees have stopped flying so as not to attract bees from other colonies.  The beekeeper is also really careful not to spill a drop of that sugar syrup.


    2.  Should I stop rescuing tired bees with sugar water? 

    No – it was still good advice to feed a tired bee.  Sadly bees do die, but sometimes they are just out of energy.  If you can pop the bee on a flower or you could give a little sugar water on a spoon.  Sometimes the bee has got cold and needs to warm up, so to place it on a flower in the sun helps.  Just don’t leave that sugar syrup out.

    3.  How about feeding bees a little honey?  Surely that’s better than sugar water?  After all it is their natural food.

    Well actually it’s not the natural food of most bees.  Only honey bees make honey and they are making it for when there isn’t enough fresh nectar for their needs such as during the winter.  Honey must be diluted by honey bees before they can use it. 

    Bumble bee nests die out before the winter and the new queens hibernate so they only collect nectar for immediate use.

    Feeding honey to bees can spread disease.

    4.  What can I do help bees? 

    You could plant some nectar and pollen rich plants.  This can be anything from a whole wildflower meadow, a herb garden, a wild corner or just a few annuals in a pot on your balcony or in your window box.  Even if you can only plant one plant, everyone will make a difference. 

    Bees also need water.  A shallow container with pebbles or marbles in regularly topped up with water will be much appreciated.

    Don’t use chemicals in your gardens.  Insecticides don’t determine between the “good” insects we want and the “bad” insects we don’t.  Many garden “pests” have a natural control – for example ladybirds will eat green and blackfly. 

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    I hope this post has explained why we shouldn’t leave sugar water out and answered any questions you have.

    I will be doing a further blog about bee friendly planting, and there is already a blog about bumble bee nests, which I hope will also answer any questions.


    PLEASE SHARE THIS AND TELL YOUR FRIEND NOT TO LEAVE SUGAR WATER OUT