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Why Leaving Sugar Water Out For Bees Is Such a Bad Idea

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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

 

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Comments

  1. Jennifer

    I want to Thank You so Much, for your Information! I was ready to put Sugar Water out for the Bees, who are sipping from my Hummingbird Feeder. I decided to do some research 1st. Something in my gut told me NO. I appreciate your Article! Thank you! Sincerely, Jennifer B. I love our Bees? I'm so glad you found the information helpful :)

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  2. Jeroen

    While this info is mostly correct, there are conditions whete sugarwater IS needed. For instance the current summer where drought has led to mass dying of natural foodsources. Right now, sugar water is a necessity for survival of the hive... Hi Jeroen - I agree with you that there are occasions when honeybees need to be fed by a beekeeper, but this blog was referring to bowls of sugar water being left out for bumble bees in Britain

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  3. Charlotte

    I also feed hummingbirds. But I only buy feeders with bee guards. Bees may still buzz around but they cant get at the sugar water. As I am in Britain I have no experience of hummingbirds (although I would love to see them). The feeders with guards do sound like a good idea

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  4. Jurre van den Bosch

    I'm a beehiver myself, and i feed the bees that i take care of with sugar water made of a extract of nettles. Whe suffer at the moment the most terribel drougth since the 70ties. I saw in my have that they didn't had much honey. Flowers depend on water for making nectar, wich is a problem at the moment. The growth of my population was declining and is now at a normal level. During the winter most beehivers give sugar water, wich is terribel indeed. Pergaps it's a better advice to use enriched suger water made of bettle water. Hello I'm not sure whereabouts you are from, but I am in Britain. Whilst conditions are hotter than usual here there is still nectar available for bees. I agree there are times when honey bees may need to be fed by the beekeeper and times of no available forage and dwindingly colony is definitely one of those times. However this blog was about leaving bowls of sugar water out for bumble bees which is not a good idea for all the reasons stated in the blog

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  5. Carol Bowes

    Hi I have a bees nest in my garage. It's right at the back and there are hundreds of bees. What should I do? Hi Carol - this very much depends on what type of bee they are, bumble bee, solitary bee or honey bee. There's a blog with a lot of info about bumble bee nests just below this one. If they are solitary bees then they will only be around for a few weeks. If they are honey bees then the best thing is to contact a local beekeeper. It's difficult to give advice without more details. If you'd like any more advice please email me and I'll try to assist. A photo or two would be helpful, and also your location.

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  6. Hilda Hayes

    I do not purposely leave sugar water - or sugar - out for the bees. But have always fed the hummingbirds in my backyard, as well as the Hooded Orioles who love grape jelly. This year the bees won?t leave this alone!! Neither the nectar nor the jelly!! I don?t want to deprive the birds! What should I do?? Hello Hilda - I'm in Surrey, England and so I don't have any experience of hummingbirds or hooded orioles. One of my followers did tell me she had the same experience with bees and so she took the feeders down and planted lots of the flowers the hummingbirds like instead, that way she still enjoyed watching the hummingbirds. I wonder whether this is a possibility for you?

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  7. Eilish

    I'm quite concerned this year. We allow our front garden grow out until late summer as the honeybees love it. For years that's been the case it's a huge haven for them. But this year there hasn't been any. We've also had a decrease in bumble bee population, we have a small bush/tree thing in the back garden we always have a colony build their nest underneath it and feed from the plant and the grass flowers. I noted a marked decrease in population and many more young bees struggling this year. Most certainly we only feed the ones who are struggling if we can get them into a flower we will try if not then we stick them on our windowsill outside with a small cap of water. Within a minute or so they have usually done their business and flown away so we can just lift the cap back in. I seem to find that this year some people are seeing a lot less bees and some are seeing a lot more. The long winter certainly had an impact. As to honey bees, its possible that they have just found a source of forage closer to the hives, or the local beekeeper may have given up beekeeping or moved his hives. There's any number of reason why there are less bees around this year, but hopefully next year you will see more again

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  8. AndraK

    This year in particular I have seen a lot of bees on the ground either dead or dying. This includes honey bees and solitary bees. I saw it starting in April, when it was still quite cold, and it has carried on to date. I don't recall seeing so many dead bees in previous years, and as I walk our dogs every morning, I do notice things like that. Any ideas on this? Hi - bees don't leave a particularly long life, but if you're seeing an increase in dead bees on previous years I just wonder whether there's more pesticide use in the area?

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  9. Valerie Vogtmann-Rickman

    Thank you so much for taking the care and time to explain what the general public, probably like me, that are caring but not Bee specialists, need to know to help our Bee population. I do the emergency watered down honey on a spoon but have not done sugar. I also do the shallow water with marbles or pebbles in. Friends and I are successful in, or trying hard as in my case, to do the wild flower sowing. I have seen some really beautiful and effective examples this year. I hope I will be able to share this post and follow you as your words were written in a way that is easy to understand and follw and definately informative. You are very welcome Valerie - I am glad it was helpful. I am on facebook and intend to write some more bee related blogs over the next few weeks. I hope you'll enjoy them as well

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  10. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Thanks for a very coherent explanation of the subject - and good reasons why we should plant flowers, and not give bees 'junk' sugar, except in emergencies. I have a well-established perennial garden with local flowering plants so we have blooms from early spring until the last of fall, and love to see the dragonflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other little fliers feeding at each fresh crop of blossoms. No exotic plants - just what's natural to New Jersey and blooms here every year. Thank you. Your garden sounds absolutely lovely.

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  11. Gordon

    All well and good but how does one keep bees from raiding the Hummingbird feeders? I keep moving the feeders around but the bees still find it fast and they can drain a feeder pretty quick. I'm sorry Gordon but I don't have any experience of humming bird feeders as we don't have hummingbirds in England - although I wish we did. I'm guessing the solution in the feeder must be sugar based and if that is the case it's going to be similar to leaving out the bumble bee feeders in this country and you are not going to be able to stop them. Is it possible to plant the flowers they like instead? From the little I know about hummingbird I'm guessing there's not many bees who can access the nectar in the same flowers, but as I said I don't have any experience of hummingbirds.

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  12. Jan

    Post still there from Sir David. Just looked this up to copy and paste in response to exactly this on a frIends page ! Thank you for sharing

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  13. Graham Fiddes

    very informative artical on Bees , hope word gets around now by sharing this info. Thankyou. Thank you I'm glad you enjoyed it. Please feel free to share as much as you like :)

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