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.
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.
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.
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
Please Note: I am based in Surrey, England. I therefore have no experience of hummingbirds or hummingbird feeders and do not feel qualified to comment on enquiries about either.