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.
Early spring bumble bee queens
In early spring, large furry 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 bumble bee colonies for the year (colonies that will number in the low hundreds of cute little 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 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).
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, which are difficult for bees to digest), and 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).
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.
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.
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!
Posted • Updated Mar. 26th, 2018 • By Elise Fog