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How to help a bee in distress

Have you ever come across a bumble bee in distress and wondered how to help? Did you ever find a bumble bee that seemed grounded and unable to fly? Have you felt the urge to do something?

Because bumble bee populations are shrinking, people want to help. But it’s hard to help an individual bee because, most of the time, the distressed bees you find are at the end of their natural life. Even though they may drink the syrup or water you offer them, chances for a full recovery are low.

Dead bees are everywhere

Bees die all the time, but usually we don’t notice. A honey bee colony, for example, may lose upwards of a thousand members per day, especially in the late spring and early summer. Most often, those bees simply worked themselves to death. They put many miles on a set of thin, diaphanous wings that sooner or later can no longer carry them. It’s sad but true.

Since I began photographing bees, I’ve amassed a huge collection of dead bees that I found while kneeling in the dirt. You see lots of things down there that you miss standing up. But regardless of where you are, bumbles are the easiest to find because they are big and furry. And honey bees are easy to find because they are so numerous.

Queens live the longest

A bee life is shorter than most of us expect. Most bees, whether they live alone or in great congregations, have an active adult life of about four to six weeks. There are exceptions, of course, such as a honey bee queen who can live upwards of five years under ideal conditions. More probably, however, she lives about a year.

Bumble bee queens have a life that maxes out after just one year, even when conditions are good. A bumble bee queen emerges toward the end of the season. She then mates with a male bee and spends a few weeks fattening up. On cool autumn days, you often see enormous bumble bee queens foraging in the garden. Their immense size makes you wonder how they can fly.

Once mated and fat, bumble queens go off on their own and find a secluded, cozy place to overwinter. Usually they pick a spot that offers protection from the elements and is safe from predators. A narrow hole in the ground works for most. During the winter these queens hibernate, burning their fat stores for energy. In the spring, they will emerge from their hibernaculum—a fancy word for an overwintering spot—and begin looking for a place to build a nest.

Bee life is short

Except for the queens of social colonies, the vast majority of female bees emerge from their cocoon as adults. They mate, collect pollen for several weeks, and then die. The males hang around the nests looking for a chance to mate before they, too, die. No amount of feeding or mollycoddling on your part will make any difference to the length of their lives. Just like any living thing, their lifespan is programed into their genes. And while it is easy to shorten the lifespan of a living thing, it is hard to lengthen it.

Of course there are other reasons why a bee might die. She may have gotten into pesticides. She may have a disease or some sort of parasite. Or she may have been injured. If a bee is grounded for any of these reasons, she is probably at the end. However, if the bee simply got caught out in the cold, the dark, or the rain, you may be able to help.

Bees are not pets

Just don’t help too much. I’ve seen tiny cotton-lined boxes made comfy for ailing bumble bees. I’ve seen them being fed, and warmed, and cooled. Heck, I’ve heard of people singing to them. Whatever. But remember, they are not pets. You cannot keep a bumble bee in a glass jar like a goldfish, and children should be discouraged from trying it.

Bees need to be outside in the flowers and sunshine tending to their young, and social bees need to be with their colony. So whatever kind of assistance you decide to render, make it short. A night to get warm and dry is fine, but don’t keep them for days. And don’t provide quarts of syrup, either. A single drop is enough to get a hungry bee back on her wings.

Remember, a stranded bee will not see you as her knight in shining armor, no matter what you do for her. More likely, she is terrified. Being carted off by something the size of a human is probably far more distressing than just waiting for the sun to shine.

Should you do something?

If you have an overwhelming urge to do something, start by assessing the bee’s situation. If it’s a big fat queen bumble bee in the spring or fall that looks okay except for being wet, just move her to a sunny place and let her warm up naturally. Bees that get caught out at night or in the rain can recover quickly with just a little warmth.

Feeding syrup

If you think the bee needs food, put a small drop of sugar syrup near her, but not touching her. You want to leave the eating decision to her, so don’t stick the syrup in her face. If she gets sticky or wet from the syrup, she will be worse off than if you did nothing.

Mix about a teaspoon of sugar in 2 teaspoons of water, and give her one single drop. Resist the temptation to give a grounded bee honey. Honey can carry bee diseases and attract other bees, further stressing your patient.

Bringing bees inside

If you find a bee in the evening and want to bring her inside for the night, put her in an enclosed container with air holes. If you don’t restrain her, she might start flying around the inside of your home and head-butting the light bulbs. Not good. So just close the ventilated container (a small cardboard box with holes works well) and keep the box at a cool room temperature until morning. Then let her go.

Oftentimes the bees that you find in flowers in the early morning or late at night are male bees. The males of many species sleep in flowers, and yes, by morning they are covered with dew and look damned uncomfortable. But that is nature’s way and those bees should be left alone to do what bees do. They will wake up with the sunshine.

End of life

If your bee isn’t wet or cold or not obviously injured, it may have some issue you can’t see. It may have a disease, a parasite, or some injury you can’t detect. Likewise, a bee may simply be dying of old age. Signs of age included ragged wings and a loss of hair, making her look especially shiny and black.

Bees with these conditions are not going to recover, so it may be more humane to do nothing. If the insect is suffering, perhaps prolonging its life is not the best idea. Just understand that all the effort is more for you than for them because their chances for survival are small.

Let it bee

For me, the best option is to let a bee in distress do what nature intended. If you like, you can use the opportunity to get a closer look or take a photo. But if you do decide to take action, keep it short and simple. After that, walk away and let your bee be a bee.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A bee in distress. This bee's wings are tattered and the abdomen is shiny and nearly hairless. Both may be signs of an old bee.
This bee’s wings are tattered and the abdomen is shiny and nearly hairless. Both may be signs of an old bee. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Ray
Reply

‘Hibernaculum’, what a lovely word! So that’s what I’m creating when I make assorted designs of cosy places for my bumbles and solitary bees to overwinter!

Rusty
Reply

Yep. It’s both a word lover’s word and a bee lover’s word.

Michael Ashton
Reply

Found a bee in my kitchen, he’s got a broken wing and unable to fly, I feel bad to put him outside, what can I do?

Rusty
Reply

Put him outside.

Suzi

Found a small honey bee in my backyard on the ground twitching with its tongue out and don’t know what to do or what if anything can be done to help to save it. Looks poisoned? So helpless the poor little thing. Put it onto a flat surface so it’s off the floor and away from the ants but unsure what else I could do. Water? Help!

Oli Bee

A bee plinked to the ground beside me outside today, unable to even beat its wings. We watched for a half-minute or so before noticing that it looked incredibly distressed, it ran in very tight circles, and desperately climbed-and-then-fell off of the 2 nearby succulents. I brought a little vessel of water mist and a stamen with pollen from a flower – yet it wandered desperately and aimlessly for nearly 10 minutes! After a quick google, my only conclusion was that this bee was infected, and likely suffering, so I quickly dispatched it. Autopsy revealed nil to my very amateur eyes, so I’m still really curious what the ailment was. Very sad to see, may their little bee soul rest easy.

Marisa

I have a strange situation with a bee and am not sure what the best tho g to do would be. A bee crawled on me that I realized cannot fly; I’m not sure why, it buzzes its wings fine but just doesn’t go anywhere. Basically I didn’t want to flick it off and it stayed on me for a long time outside, came with me in my car, and eventually, it crawled off and I left my car for over an hour and when I came back it crawled right back on my head. This happened a couple more times where I was out with the bee before I had a chance to stop home and it would come back to me in the car. I have since brought it home and put a mosquito net plate covering over a little enclosure. I even was outside with it when it was on me and would have let it crawl off me onto the ground but it didn’t. I have determined she is a female carpenter bee. She’s the biggest bee I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to just pull her off me and put her on the ground because I’m not too sure how well a bee that can’t fly can survive. I’m hoping she will eventually be able to fly because she does seem like she is trying to sometimes.

Rusty
Reply

Put him outside.

Jess
Reply

Hi all, I had a honey bee land in my hot tub around noon yesterday as I assume 34°C isn’t pleasant for the little fellas, however, I scooped him out and got him dry. As I have 2 large dogs I put a pop bottle lid with a shallow amount of syrup and some small stones so he may drink the liquid along with a few fresh flowers is a small open glass pot. I placed him in a sunny spot to dry but he is still here this morning. Moving very slowly however loving the sunflowers in the kitchen, (was rather chilly so I brought him inside to warm up) but he’s just not perking up. I read your article and overall the bee himself is in good-looking condition I’m just concerned he hasn’t flown away yet. Any tips or suggestions would be fantastic. Thank you

Dieter
Reply

Not quite on topic, do bumble bees sting?

Rusty
Reply

Dieter,

Yes. The females can sting multiple times and it can be nasty.

Heidi Walczak
Reply

WalzakH@aol.com

Really enjoy your posts. Learning a lot. New beekeeper 2 years. Had one hive that did not survive our winter. Started over with 2 new nucs. One struggles and one strong. Not certain if queen problem. Trying to manipulate by suggestion of switching couple brood frames from strong into the week. Still have couple weeks before real cold starts. Rain next two days so doing this Wednesday. Anyhow thank you for your wisdoms I enjoy the reads!
Heidi , Ontario Canada ?

Rusty
Reply

Heidi,

Equalizing the strength of two hives often works well. Just be sure not to weaken the strong one too much.

Emma
Reply

Hi, I have found a bee today. I put her in my little greenhouse and made her some sugar water. I have now bought her indoors filled a pot up with flowers hoping it will make her feel more comfortable. I will put her back in the morning.

I can see that one of her wings is a little twisted 😢, but she can move them both.

I also made a sugar watch ball out of loo roll. It’s very small ball I’m hoping she will be able to drink from it if she wishes.

Does anyone have any idea on what else I can do?

The poor girl is so scared when I moved her to the pot of flowers, putting her feet out as to say please don’t hurt me 😢. I feel so bad for her.

Anna S.
Reply

This is such a nice and timely article, Rusty. Two weeks ago, on a cold evening, I found a male bumble bee in my garden, looking wet and cold, and brought him home. Kept him in a ventilated box and fed him. The next day was very cold (we’re in Michigan), but it warmed up after that, so my husband took him back to the garden, and he (the bee, not the husband) flew right into the flowers. The other day I rescued a tiny native bee who was drowning in a water-filled bucket graciously left by the people who rent the neighboring garden plot. I put her on a pineapple sage flower and watched her clean herself. She flew away when she was ready. My sight isn’t great, but somehow, I always spot these tiny creatures.

I am also known to bring home my own dying honey bees, if I find them around the hives. I know it makes little difference, but I see ants trying to dismember them while they’re still alive and I just hate it.

John Wheeler
Reply

Rusty,
Your comments on bees in distress is very well said!
John

farquhar veitch
Reply

Feeding one bumble bee which flew in my window. Fed it sugar syrup the same as I feed my bees and it flew after 20 minutes. Hope it got back to its nest.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thanks Rusty,

Just a few days ago I found a ground-bound bumble whom I nudged onto a safer surface. A bit of time and the bee flew off. Good for her — if she hadn’t recovered, I would have adopted her remains into my teaching collection. I imagine “weary” would be the best way to describe my rescued bee.

But many a bee is more accurately “in torpor”, not “caught out” so much as just an overnight camper. Additionally, almost all males sleep outside, and some bumble species generate an enthusiastic excess of drones. Even worker bumbles, with surprising frequency, avoid returning at night. A bee that wobbles and teeters across the ground mid-day is one thing, but found groggy at dawn and dusk totally different.

Cheers, Glen

Miss Samantha Walker
Reply

Hiya Can I just say the sugar needs to be white granulated if feeding… as brown sugar gives them dysentry and icing sugar has anti-coagulants in.

Lovely Article Rusty 🙂

Thanks
Sam

Rusty
Reply

When honey bees are confined for long periods in the winter and they are eating a lot of sugar, then I agree the ash content of the sugar is important. But in the case where you will be feeding one drop of sugar water to a bee that will either die anyway or fly away (and thus be able to defecate outside), it doesn’t make one bit of difference.

Kayla
Reply

So a bee flew in my house and it landed on my mom‘s leg and she’s allergic so she swatted it away but I wanted to help it so I put it in a cup and put some paper over it and brought them back outside and I gave him some sugar water and he never drank it so I just kind a left him outside hoping he would be OK and he fly away at some point and I went back out in the morning and he never flew away and it rained that night so I brought him in and put him in my moss garden to recover and warm up but I got worried that the hive he came from won’t accept him back or something and I just want to know if he’ll be fine when he’s flying again and ready to leave.

Annie
Reply

Hi. I have a dying bee; he is literally chopped in half. Any help?

Ellen Hobson
Reply

I have a grounded big fat bumblebee in my garden, been there for 2 days. It has been cold and it’s warm today but with a wind. I think it might have a broken left wing. At the moment, I’ve covered it with my plastic propagator, on top of brambles and grass so it has somewhere to bury down and also get out under the propagator if it wants to. Any other advice? It looks health apart from the dodgy wing.

Rusty
Reply

Ellen,

If it is injured, there is nothing more you can do. If it’s just cold, it may recover. You’ve taken reasonable steps, that’s the important thing.

steph
Reply

I’m not sure what type of bee, but it doesn’t look wet and its wings aren’t damaged. It’s been on the ground for two days it moved from an area by the garage and flower bed to a dandelion a few inches away and then to the edge of our pathway a few more inches away. I went over to it to see if it would fly away or move if I waved my hand around it.. all it did was lift up a leg. I don’t want to let it die if I can help but I don’t want to interfere if it’s at the end of its life.

Irene whitmarsh
Reply

Hi having just recently had my tiny cottage garden landscaped I love watching the bees on the lavender and passion flowers. I have made good use from an antique stone birdbath by putting in pebbles topping up with just enough water. The bees now are settling on the pebbles to drink. I find your site so useful am about to make a syrup solution for a fallen bee who looks healthy enough so fingers crossed. From Irene in the Garden of England. Kent.

patricia
Reply

My bees have been flying around hapharzardly for two days and are drinking water more than usual. Any idea what is happening?

Rusty
Reply

Patricia,

Maybe they are thirsty? Also, you probably have brood hatching, and each of those bees needs multiple orientation flights.

patricia
Reply

It looks like they’re gone. A 5g cell tower was put up nearby with a very bright street light. Either the tower or the light may have been disturbing. I don’t see any activity where the hive was at all.

patricia
Reply

I thought the bees were gone. Now I see them again but they are still just flying around as they have been doing for about four or five days. They aren’t foraging as usual. What I’d like to know is if this is normal or possibly the effect of the cell tower which I know from research disturbs their navigation abilities.

Rusty
Reply

Patricia,

It sounds to me like you have a bunch of males patrolling for females. Normally, the males make circuits of the area, flying close to the ground. They rarely forage but may stop occasionally for a quick sip of nectar. This is completely normal, has nothing to do with cell towers, and is simply the way male bees behave. Eventually, they will die off, and the mated females will build nests and forage for pollen.

patricia
Reply

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwyDCHf5iCY

Thank you so much for your reply! Takes away the worry. I’m learning more all the time.

I’m attaching the video of a world specialist on electromagnetic fields who is not anti-industry. She doesn’t mention bees in this speech but has in others. No need to publish this. I’m just passing it on in case you are interested. Thank you, again.

Charlotte Larkin
Reply

I have a poorly bee. I found him on my doorstep 3 days ago. He’s struggling to walk and is spending most of his time lying on his back kicking his legs. I have managed to get him to drink a little sugar water every day at least twice, but he’s showing no improvement. We’re moving into day four of him struggling and I don’t know what to do. He buzzed on day 2 a little with his bottom but I don’t know whether maybe ending his struggle may be best- it feels so awful when I feel responsible for him.

He has an open box I’ve stuffed with grass with access to water and syrup if he needs it and every morning I’ve been surprised that he’s still living and kicking. It’s his legs that won’t work properly. I was really hoping he was cold and exhausted but I’m more worried now he’s very badly damaged for one reason or another and I’m just prolonging his suffering.

Giuseppe
Reply

Just seen one outside completely grounded, I think the poor thing is towards the end of its life cycle. Genuinely has upset me, I hate to see these lovely creatures in distress 😔

Nicole
Reply

I rescued a bee from a spiderweb and put him in an old flower container with a flower and some shelter.

I didn’t think he would last the night but this morning it actually looked better although it looks like it’s wing is broken.

It’s been over 24 hours now and it’s just hanging around now sitting in the flower – do I just leave it or relocate it? Could it just hang out for weeks if it doesn’t fly?

It sounds weird but I sort of feel responsible for it since I rescued it haha do I feed it something or am I just prolonging a painful life? He’s currently sheltered but can fly if he wants (but I don’t think it can)

I hardly ever see bees anymore.

Caroline Burton
Reply

Thank you for this website, which I’ve found very helpful in just how much intervention we should offer a cold, wet and exhausted bee. I read this yesterday after finding such a bee at my doorstep. I was more than pleased this morning to find a revived bumblebee take off into a clear blue sky. Just a note about not keeping a bee as a pet in a glass jar; perhaps we might think again about keeping anything captive in jars or cages, especially the lonesome goldfish often seen in a small round glass bowl as though it is some sort of ornamentation.

Oli Bee ok
Reply

A bee plinked to the ground beside me outside today, unable to even beat its wings. We watched for a half-minute or so before noticing that it looked incredibly distressed, it ran in very tight circles, and desperately climbed-and-then-fell off of the 2 nearby succulents. I brought a little vessel of water mist and a stamen with pollen from a flower – yet it wandered desperately and aimlessly for nearly 10 minutes! After a quick google, my only conclusion was that this bee was infected, and likely suffering, so I quickly dispatched it. An autopsy revealed nil to my very amateur eyes, so I’m still really curious about what the ailment was. Very sad to see, may their little bee soul rest easy.

Gugu
Reply

How do I help a bee that has honey stuck on its wings to where both wings are overlapped and the poor thing is struggling and has been for some hours? I tried gently using a q-tip to try to help while pouring water directly where it’s stuck (not drowning the poor thing) and it did nothing. Now the honey bee is in a spot away from my Yorkie but I still want to help as I am literally a tree hugger type of energy lol. I will help preserve all living things. And definitely have saved a turtle or two from highway demise. So if you know what I should try? Let me know.

Vicki Eddison
Reply

Yesterday it was extremely hot in the UK. I found a very large bee crawling in the grass at some speed. I tried a little sweet water but it clearly didn’t want to know. Unsure what to do, I took a photo and left it in a safe place. I thought if it was dying it would have moved slower or not at all. It looked ok in the photo.

Emily
Reply

I found a bee that hasn’t flown in the last two days but it seems alright. I’m quite sure that it’s a female and I have given it flowers and water but it hasn’t flown at all and its wings aren’t frayed and it hasn’t lost any hair so I’m not sure what to do. Help please?

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

If it’s a bee and it hasn’t flown in two days, then something probably is wrong with it. All you can do is give it sugar water, but it’s probably at the end of its life.

Emily
Reply

Thank you Rusty. You were right, she just died. Thank you for your response and advice 🙂

Diane
Reply

I feed grape jelly to Orioles, but in the last couple of weeks, bumble bees have become great visitors. Is grape jelly safe for them to eat? They really like it!!!

Rusty
Reply

Diane,

It’s probably fine for them because they don’t have to overwinter on it.

patricia
Reply

Why not just give it honey?

Rusty
Reply

Because some honey bee might come along and collect it, potentially spreading foulbrood.

Katherine Limehouse
Reply

I have a bumble bee in my garage. It was around 48 degrees last night so I think he/she was cold this morning when I found him on the driveway. I have a bumble bee nest on my property. Is it okay to introduce him to the nest or would the nest reject him or attack him? I have tried looking for information on this but have not been successful in finding any information. Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Katherine,

I would not interfere with this because the bee could possibly have a disease and you don’t want to take a chance of introducing it to other bumble bees. If the bee is not a queen, it will most likely die soon anyway since winter is not far off. Only the queens will make it through the winter.

Constance Banks
Reply

Just got stung by a bee on my bathmat, into the sole of my foot. Checked out bee, lifeless, so waved bathmat over the balcony for the bee to find an eternal resting place, then attending to my painful bee sting. 30 minutes later I entered the bathroom to find bee crawling on the floor with yellow stringy stuff being expelled. on a piece of cardboard. I put bee outside on a wisteria flower. Now bee just sitting there with lots of other bees flying around the wisteria. Will bee recover? Wings intact. Anything else I can do?

Rusty
Reply

Constance,

If the sting apparatus was hanging out the back, it was most likely a honey bee. Other species of bees don’t have that problem, but once a honey bee stings, her innards get pulled out and she dies. Some die right away, but in other cases, it is more prolonged, which is probably what you were seeing.

No the bee will not recover and there is nothing you can do. It is what it is.

Dieter
Reply

Just wondering, why would the bee have stung in the first place?

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