How to Save a Tired 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? Seeing these winged pollinators flying from flower to flower is common. When we find one that is immobile – it is clear that there is a problem. What can you do to help-is it possible to rescue a struggling honey bee?

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

Reviving Tired Cold Honey Bees

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

As a beekeeper, I have saved hundreds of starving colonies by making sugar water for bees and feeding at the appropriate time. This will also work for a single bee. However, the reason for the status of the insect matters as well.

If you find a bee in obvious distress, there are a couple of things to consider. Honey bees are cold blooded insects and require a certain body temperature to maintain flight.

She could be sick or maybe it is just the end of the bee’s life cycle. They don’t live forever. Exhaustion is also a possibility. The bee may be out of energy-nothing left in the tank to get her back to the nest.

Or, perhaps she is not hungry but cold instead! This is common in some seasons. 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.

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

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.

Revive an Exhausted Bee with Sugar Water

  • 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.

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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.

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 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. 

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.

Why to Not Give the Bee 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.

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.

Small Amounts of Sugar Water are Okay

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, beekeepers and other pollinator enthusiasts plant flowers that provide nectar and pollen. 

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

Also, let some of the weeds that feed bees grow in late Spring, at least for a bit. This is the easiest way to help pollinators as a whole. It also benefits many different bee species.

Having shrubs and beneficial plants also provides nests and habitat for bees of all types. Honeybees benefit from them as well. Habitat loss has affected all insects.

Worker bee foraging on purple flower image.

Honey Bee Rescue

You can not always save a dying bee. If the bee is cold or wet, just warming her up might be enough.  If she is cold and exhausted, a little sugar water may be all she needs. Also, bees do sleep – she may be taking a nap!

However, the bee life span is short compared to ours. It is normal for the older members of the colony to die at the end of their life cycle. 

Perhaps, it is just her time to go. Are you doing the bee a favor by extending her life by a few hours?

Another common cause of bee death 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.

Feeding tired bees from a toothpick image.

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.

Just keep in mind that the best food for any insect is the natural diet it was intended to have. Measures such as feeding sugar water are just emergency measures and as such should not have a harmful effect on a colony.

Safe Drinking Sources for Bees

If you add water features to your garden, be sure to have safe drinking areas for thirsty bees. My honeybees access some of the water sources – even in Winter, if the day is warm.

For pollinator health, we want clean water sources. But, I warn you, they may still drink out of a muddle puddle.

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.

Of course, if you are a beekeeper with a lot of hives – you may need a small water garden.

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