Saving a Bee

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For those of you who are nature lovers, there may come a time when you feel compelled to attempt try to save a bee. Every one counts right? Though short-lived by nature, bees sometimes get into situations that result in premature death. When you find one that is immobile – it is clear that there is a problem. Today, I give you some tips on what to do to possible rescue a struggling honey bee?

Beekeeper using warm bag to save a bee that is cold image.

Be prepared for some failures. Honey bees do not live for very long. Factors such as temperature, energy levels, and health status all play a role in how effective your efforts will be.

Reviving Tired Cold Honey Bees

You will find some resources saying that you should not attempt to save a bee with sugar water. As an experienced beekeeper, I do not believe that. 

I have saved hundreds of starving colonies by making sugar water for bees and feeding at the appropriate time. This process will work for a single bee too if low body temperature and lack of energy are the only problems.

If you find a bee in obvious distress, there are a couple of things to consider. Honey bees are insects (cold blooded) and require a certain body temperature to maintain flight. She may be sick – bees don’t live forever. Exhaustion is also a possibility.

Early Spring Struggles

It is not uncommon for me to find cold bees in my water garden in early Spring. The bee’s water source is cold. They drink and then become unable to fly. 

Just warming her up might be enough to enable her to fly back to the hive. However, if she has been struggling to maintain flight it is likely she has used up her energy reserves too.

As the evening sun goes down and daily temperatures drop, they will die unable to return to the hive. If I notice them in time, I can save some of them. Simply placing the bee on a warm surface may be enough. It is a little thing but very rewarding to me.

Saving an Exhausted Bee with Sugar Water

Here are the steps to save a bee that is cold and tired but otherwise healthy.

  • remove bee from water (if in water)
  • place on a warm surface
  • after she begins to move – offer a taste of sugar water (or honey from a known source)

1. Gently scoop the immobile honey bee up with a piece of cardboard, newspaper etc. Tired bees can often still sting. I have been stung by a honey bee during my rescue efforts. They don’t know you are trying to help.

2. If the temperatures are cold, place her on a warm surface. This could be a rock that has been warmed by the sun earlier in the day or my favorite – a sandwich bag filled with warm water.

How long does it take to revive a bee? It takes several minutes, at least 5 -10. If she is not too far gone, you will notice activity soon. The bee will slowly start to move.

She will begin to clean her pair of antenna – getting ready to fly. You will also notice her abdomen pumping – this is to warm up muscles so it is possible for the wings to flap fast enough for the bee to fly.

3. Once she is active and cleaning herself, offer her a tiny drop of sugar water on the tip of a toothpick or similar item. A small spoon will work well too. 

Energy Sugar Mixture

Mix 2 tablespoons of cane sugar (regular white sugar) with 1 tablespoon of water (warm). This sugar solution mimics the sugar content of natural nectar.

The bee smells the sweet food and extends her proboscis (tongue) to drink it up. This energy boost takes affect quickly – much like an energy drink for humans.

Do not use brown sugar or molasses. The gut of bees is not designed for them and you may do more harm than good.

Person giving a tired bee some sugar water for energy.

Saving an Cold Honey Bee in my Apiary

Even though it might not be a wise investment of my time, I attempt to revive every struggling bee that I find. Recently, I found a pollen forager bee who had become cold and exhausted while working on a warm Winter’s day.

She did not need food but rather just some time on the warm water bag. Once warmed up, she flew off towards the honey bee hives. I hope I gave her at least a few more days of life. It made me feel good at any rate and does no harm.

Why to Avoid Honey

Do not feed bees honey unless you are sure of the source. A honey bee disease known as American Foul Brood can be transmitted through honey. It is harmless to humans but deadly to bee colonies. 

Feeding honey from any hives other than your own is not advised. In some countries it is actually illegal to feed bees raw honey for this very reason.

Worker bee foraging on purple flower image.

Realities of Honey Bee Rescue

You can not always save a dying bee. And they don’t always need your help. Perhaps, it is just her time to go. Also, bees do sleep – she may be taking a nap!

Another common cause of bee death or strange behavior is pesticides. If the forager has been in contact with chemicals that have made her sick, no amount of rescue efforts can save her.

This happens more frequently in Summer when gardeners are attempting to protect vegetable gardens from insects. Dust pesticides like Sevin Dust can harm bees.

Feeding tired bees from a toothpick image.

Bees Need Diverse Nutrition

While it can be a life saver, sugar water is not good for bees to consume constantly. The bee diet should be widely diverse with carbohydrates and proteins from many different plants. 

Beekeepers realize the importance of proper feeding for healthy colonies. They often feed colonies during times drought or nectar dearth. But, this must not be the sole diet of their honey bees.

For the general bee population, constantly leaving out a bowl of sugar water is not the best idea. Instead, pollinator enthusiasts should plant flowers that provide nectar and pollen. 

Bee-friendly flowers that bloom over a long season are a wonderful addition to your bee garden. They feed butterflies too!

Safe Drinking Sources

If you add water features to your garden, be sure to have safe drinking areas for thirsty bees. You can still have some accidents with bees getting into the water (especially in early Spring). However, try to include safe shallow places for them to drink.

Except for the hot periods of the year, even small bee waterers or bee baths can be helpful. As the season warms, larger water stations feed more insects with less maintenance.

FAQs

How can I tell if a bee needs help?

A bees in distress seems lethargic, immobile, or disoriented. If you find a bee on the ground or unable to fly, especially in colder temperatures, it may need assistance.

Is it safe to handle bees?

Even bees in need of help can and will sting. When rescuing a bee, use gentle methods like cardboard or soft fabric to handle them.

Can I use any type of sugar water to revive a bee?

It’s best to use a simple sugar solution made with cane sugar and warm water. Other products can harm the bee or make her feel worse. Keep it simple.

A Final Thought

Sometimes, we do things that make us feel good and may not truly be an advantage for the recipient. While the act of saving a tired bee may often be an exercise in futility, that does not mean it is a bad idea. Helping one more bee live a few days longer may not change the world – but I would think it means a lot to that individual bee.

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