I’m often asked by folks what to do when one finds a cold, wet, or sluggish bee. The good news is that in many cases, you can help! And depending on the bee, you may not just be helping one bee but many, because your bee may be a queen bee.
If after reading all of the tips and advice below, you still have questions about your particular bee situation, drop a comment on this page and I’ll try to get back to you within the hour (sometimes much quicker, but other times I’m not as available)!
Early spring bumble bee queens
In early spring, large fluffy bumble bee queens are emerging from their winter hibernation. They’re searching for the earliest spring flowers and looking for the perfect underground burrow in which to start their colonies for the year (colonies that will number in the low hundreds of cute, fuzzy bumble bees).
This timing is difficult for a bee to determine, and sometimes you’ll find a stranded bumble bee queen who’s simply run out of steam and needs a helping hand. Not only may unseasonable weather trip them up, but a lack of flowers may too (a foraging bumble bee is only ever about 40 minutes away from starvation).
A quick sugar-water fix
- 1 part sugar crystals (not brown)
- 1 part room temperature water
Mix vigorously, then offer small portion
The first thing to do is to feed your bee. A cold, hungry bee is nothing to fear (in fact, bees are nothing to fear anyway, and you’re probably not too worried if you’re reading this page… but if you are, keep in mind that a cold sluggish bee is in no position or mood to sting… they’re simply hungry and cold, and will be happy for any help you provide).
To feed your bee, mix up some organic granulated cane sugar or refined white sugar crystals to create a sugar-water solution. A 1:1 mix (50%/50%) is appropriate, and this can be achieved simply by stirring the sugar rapidly in room temperature water. Offer a small portion of this solution (just a drop or two to begin with) in a shallow lid or teaspoon placed near the bee’s head.
You may see something long sticking out from the bee’s head, which is her tongue… if you see this, place a drop of your sugar-water mix directly beneath her tongue. Not too much as a weakened bee may be clumsy, and you don’t want to make the situation worse by getting your bee covered in sugary water (which a sluggish bee will have trouble cleaning off herself, though she’ll be able to once she recovers her energy).
In most cases, your bee will recover quickly after drinking some sugar-water. Offering sugar-water often works even if it appears to you as though your bee is dead! A quick sugar-water fix should help your bee on its way to living another day 😌 It may take a few minutes or a few hours for her to recover, depending on how weak she was to begin with. Don’t be surprised to find your bee gone if you’re not keeping a constant eye on her!
Note that if it’s cold out (but otherwise good weather for bees), you’ll speed your bee’s recovering along by warming her up. You may do this by placing her in the sun, by letting her sit on your warm skin (a hand or arm), or by bringing her indoors briefly (in a ventilated box) to warm up and drink some sugar-water.
Types of sugar to avoid
It’s important to avoid brown sugar (which contains extra solids from molasses) and avoid maple syrup (which contains extra minerals), both of which are difficult for bees to digest. Also, do not use boiling water (when sugars caramelize at high heat, they can create indigestible and possibly bee-toxic compounds).
In years past, I advised feeding a drop of local raw honey, but this can be a vector for spreading bee diseases, so to be safe, avoid feeding honey. If you’ve fed honey in the past, don’t worry about it too much, chances are you likely helped anyway.
Avoid high fructose corn syrup at all costs, as compounds toxic to bees can be formed during manufacturing (as a result of overheating). And it should go without saying to avoid the fake stuff! I avoid conventional sugar because of possible pesticide residues (especially when sourced from sugar beets, which account for most sugar production and consumption in the United States; Monsanto licenses a Roundup Ready trait to sugarbeet seed companies).
Feeding bees sugar-water
The sugar-water solution I detail above should only be used in emergency situations. Sugar-water is not sufficient for bees nutritional needs long-term (they need all the other trace components of flower nectar for a balanced diet). Putting a dish of sugar-water out may attract bees, but it is not a good idea and it will not help bees in your area, however much they may appear to appreciate it as free food (it can also incense some bees and cause them to be more aggressive than they usually would be, as they compete for such an unusually easy food source).
Bees need pure water though! One of the best things you can do (especially on hot days) is to provide a large shallow dish of fresh water with pebbles in it so that bees may easily reach the water without falling into it. Honey bees in particular need water on hot days in order to cool their hives, and you may see a variety of pollinators and other insects coming to your water dish if you watch for any length of time!
What if it’s freezing outdoors?
Sometimes you’ll find a bee in need of help in unseasonable weather (especially in early spring when bumble bee queens are emerging from hibernation). After offering sugar-water, you may decide that the best thing to do is to keep your bee overnight. If it’s late at night and cold, or raining or even snowing outdoors, then releasing your bee may not be an option.
Base your decision on the time of day, the weather, and your observation of the bee… if it’s morning or afternoon, and she looks ready to go after sipping sugar-water, then she’ll likely want to bee on her way (even if it’s cool and a bit rainy). If it’s approaching evening or night, the weather is worsening, and the bee seems sluggish, her chances will improve by keeping her overnight (some people even end up keeping their bees several nights in a row, until the weather improves… just be sure to mimic as much as possible typical day/night light cycles and temperatures, so your bee doesn’t get confused).
In that case, it’s time to make a cozy home for your bee for the night. A shoebox works well for this (with holes punched in it to provide ventilation). Although we like soft things to lie on, it’s best not to add materials inside the box, as things like fabric may catch on a sluggish bee’s feet and make moving even more of a struggle for her.
Place her in the box, and provide a little greenery too so that it’s not just a bee inside a stark, empty box. Generally speaking (for overnight stays), I’d avoid placing flowers in the box, as they will lose their nectar fairly quickly, and may confuse a bee looking for food. However, I’ve heard of times when having flowers inside the box is just the thing to “cheer up” a bee and speed her on her way. If the time of day and weather is just “iffy” and might still be good enough for your bee to go out in, then try adding flowers into her box and seeing if she buzzes around sufficiently to bee on her way. If you’re still left with a sluggish bee, remove the flowers but put something natural of interest in the box for the night.
Also leave a very shallow and small dish of sugar-water inside the box. Place the box somewhere that’s not too warm not too cold… err on the side of cooler, simply because it’s going to simulate their natural environment better. But certainly don’t allow the box to sit in freezing temperatures! Somewhere “in-between” such as a garage, utility room, or other sheltered and lightly-heated area is ideal.
Check on your bee from time to time; if she’s full of energy and buzzing, she may well wish to take her chances outdoors. Bumble bee queens in particular are fairly well-equipped for unseasonable weather (bumble bees are quite special in terms of their ability to decouple their flight muscles from their wings and vibrate them in order to warm themselves up).
If your bee seems comfortable and settled into her box, then wait to release her until the weather is more favorable (at least 50-55°F or 10-12°C). Bees are not particularly early risers! On the next day of decent weather, make sure your bee has had a little sugar-water for breakfast, and then leave her box open in a sunny warm spot outdoors. If you hang around for a few minutes, you’ll likely see her buzz around her box a bit, and then take off happily!
A few years ago I read the most charming story about someone’s encounter with a bumble bee queen and how she rescued it with sugar water and a night in a shoebox. Read her inspiring story: The Plight of the Bumblebee
How to save a drowning bee
Sometimes people see bees struggling in water, unable to reach anything that would give them a “leg up” and out to safety. The easiest way to rescue a bee from the water is to use a leaf or some other object close-to-hand to scoop them up. If you rescue your bee from water, the first thing to do is to put it in the sunlight so it can dry out and warm up. While we generally prefer recovering in the shade, bees recover far faster in full sun.
Avoid handling the bee much, or attempting to separate the wings or correct other things that appear amiss. Warm sun will help “reactivate” the bee, which can then clean its own wings much more gently than us. It’s also a good idea to offer a sugar-water mix as above, if your bee doesn’t take off soon after being scooped up and placed somewhere warm and dry.
If it’s too late at night for there to be any warmth or sunlight, then keep your bee overnight in a ventilated box following the suggestions above, and release her the following morning.
What if there are mites on the bee?
The bee mites we read about in the news are a very specific type of mite (Varroa destructor) that only affects honey bees because of their unique life cycle. If your bee is a larger, fuzzier bee, chances are it’s a bumble bee instead. Bumble bees have mites too… they’re just far smaller mites, and they’re not dangerous for the bee. They’re typically “hitchhiking” to the bumble bee’s nest from flowers, where the mites then feed on small bits of detritus around the nest.
So there’s no need to try to remove tiny mites from bees you find. The only time they can be a problem is in rare instances when hundreds pile onto a bee at once, impacting its ability to fly. I’ve seen photos documenting this, but it really is unusual. Honey bee mites are far larger by comparison… it would be like one of us having a rabbit-sized tick feeding off us!
What kind of bee is it?
There are so many different kinds of bees, but when you find a bee, it’s very often one of the more common types. If it’s large and fuzzy, it’s probably a bumble bee. If it’s really large and fuzzy, it’s probably a queen bumble bee (especially if it’s early spring). Honey bees are smaller by comparison, less fuzzy, and have that classic “striping” that we expect from seeing drawings of bees.
Honey bees need to get back to their hives for the night, but bumble bees can stay out a night or too just fine. Bumble bees are also capable of generating their own heat (which they do by decoupling their wings from their flight muscles and then “buzzing” to warm up)! Bumble bees are more likely to get caught out in bad weather, simply because they’re more likely to fly in cooler temperatures (even in the rain), whereas honey bees stay tucked in their hives on cold and rainy days.
So if you find a bee on a cold, wet day, it’s most likely a bumble bee. You can help a bumble bee by offering sugar-water and potentially keeping the bee overnight in a ventilated box (as above), especially if it’s late in the day and the weather is worsening. Release your bee the following morning once the sun is up, and offer sugar-water again to give the bee a good start to her day!
Honey bees are most often found in need of help, having fallen into a pool of water accidentally on a warm day. Honey bees collect water in order to cool their hives, hence they face more dangers from falling into pools and ponds while trying to get to the water. Honey bees can be helped by simply removing from the water and putting them in the sun (offering sugar-water helps too, especially if it almost drowned before you found the bee). If you consistently find yourself rescuing bees from pools of water near your home, try placing pebbles in a shallow dish and keeping that filled with water, especially on hot days!
These are all bumble bee queens:
These are all honey bee workers:
What if I’m out and about and find a struggling bee?
When I go for long walks in spring, I carry a small vial of sugar-water with me in case I see a bee in need. I just read about the neatest (British) project for this, far easier to bring along wherever you go… so if you agree, consider supporting them! Bee Saviour Behaviour Crowdfunder Campaign
Posted • Updated Apr. 20th, 2019 • By Elise Fog