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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.

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.

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.

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