honey bee threats

Honey bee down! How to help a drowning bee

A honey bee standing at the edge of a water source. Pixabay

While most honey bees are careful around water, sometimes they land in it. A wet bee can easily drown, so it’s important to give them safe places to stand.

Inside: If you see a drowning bee, simply scoop it out of the water with your hands or a nearby object. Put it in a safe spot and it will groom away the water.

Bees can drown in the tiniest puddles of water. Why? Because a bee cannot breathe when its body gets wet. And when its wings are wet, it cannot fly.

Bees breathe through little holes in their bodies

Unlike mammals with lungs or fish with gills, most insects breathe through small holes in their body. These holes, called spiracles, are found in pairs. In bees, the thorax has three pairs of spiracles and the abdomen has seven. Once air gets in, it is pushed through the body with balloon-like air sacs.

But if the holes are filled with water, the air can’t get in. Having spiracles filled with water is akin to having lungs filled with water. Not good. Because the bee can’t get oxygen, it quickly drowns.

Thin wings stick together when wet

Bees have two pairs of very thin wings. When wings get wet, bad things happen. First, they are likely to stick together, bonded by the properties of water. Just like wet hairs adhere to each other, so do wet wings.

The other thing that happens is a bee is heavier when wet, making it harder to fly. This is especially true if the bee is already carrying a load of nectar or pollen. Heavy bees may not get off the ground, or they may have trouble with wind and air currents.

And because a heavy bee cannot maneuver as well and is slow to take off, it becomes an easy target for birds and other predators.

Bees can land on water by mistake

Bee vision doesn’t work like our own, and many entomologists think bees may have trouble seeing water from the air. This is particularly true of shallow water that takes on the color of the soil or water laden with moss or other greenery.

Swimming pools with their artificial blue coloring seem to be confusing to bees as well. Some pools become overrun with honey bees. The lucky ones land on the deck, but others appear to dive right in.

It is likely that bees spot large bodies of water by sight but smaller amounts by scent. The honey bee’s preference for water that smells, is well documented and may account for their affinity to swimming pools.

Just reach into the water to save a drowning bee

If you run across a bee in water, you can just slide your hand beneath it and lift it out. The chance of getting stung is extremely low because wet bees have a low ability to get into the stinging position. If the water is too shallow to reach under the bees, you can use a leaf, stick, or credit card to pull it out.

Then just place the bee somewhere where it can groom away the water. They will dry faster in bright sunshine, but if they are easily seen from the air, they may get eaten. I like to place them on the ground under some protective foliage, if possible.

If there are many bees in the water, such as at a swimming pool, use the net for skimming debris off the surface to round up a lot of bees in a hurry.

Don’t mess with hibiscus turret bees

The one bee you don’t want to pull out of the water is the hibiscus turret bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis. These bees are designed to land on the water. From that comfortable position, they collect water so they can carry it home for making mud nests. These bees look a lot like big bumble bees and they are found in the southeastern states.

To prevent drowning, give bees a safe place to stand

If you set up a watering hole for your bees or for wild bees, give them a safe place to stand while they drink. You can use stones or marbles that stick up out of the water. Alternatively, you can use things that float, such as corks or wooden sticks.

It’s better to be proactive about providing standing places than to try to fish wet bees out of the water. Not only is it best for the bees, but it’s fun to watch them drink.

Honey Bee Suite

This Andrena mining bee was in a puddle in a dirt road. I just lifted it out with my finger. After a minute or so, it took off. All it needed was a little help. Rusty Burlew
This Andrena mining bee was in a puddle on a dirt road. I just lifted him out of the water with my finger. After a minute or so, he took off. All he needed was a little help. Rusty Burlew

Check out an interesting watering feature here.

About Me

My love of bee science is backed by a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I have written extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. In recent years, I’ve taken multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist. My master beekeeping certificate issued from U Montana. More here.


  • Did you ever make a scaled-down version of that water feature you linked to?

    I had to google up that hibiscus bee. You’d think all the mud-builders would be able to land in water like that.

    • Roberta,

      I got as far as designing it, but I haven’t built it yet. Someday.

      Also, I had an article about hibiscus bees in 2 Million Blossoms. I will scare it up and republish it here. They are awesome bees.

  • When I rescue bees from water, I use paper kitchen towel to dry them off. If you just touch them gently with a corner of the paper towel, it wicks the moisture away and the bees dry off a lot quicker. It’s really satisfying to watch them flyboff within a matter of minutes.

  • “In bees, the thorax has three pairs of spiracles and the thorax has seven. Once air gets in, it is pushed through the body with balloon-like air sacs.”

    Do you mean that the abdomen has 7?

  • I saw a drowning bee struggle in my bird bath, and as I went to get a stick to help it out, I watched another worker dive bomb the struggling bee and they both landed on the rim of the bird bath and eventually flew away. Wondrous empathy – hive mind at work!

  • I tried rescuing one of my bees from a snow pile next to the hive when the xxxx bee flew out after a snow storm. I simply picked it up and was putting it back on the landing board when she stung me!!! Don’t know that I’d just use my hand to rescue one from the water…..

    • Beverly,

      So there you are trying to save her life and in return, she tries to take yours. Hardly seems fair, does it?

  • Hi, just found your site in a desperate attempt to find out what’s the best sugar-water ratio to use in terms of storage. A few times I’ve encountered exhausted bees and have been able to help them with sugar water if my house is nearby, other times I’ve been caught out, so I’ve decided to make a little kit to have on me just in case. The only trouble I’m having is I’ve read that a 1:1 ratio of sugar:water goes bad/ferments after 4-5 days. Would higher sugar: water ratio like 2:1 last any longer or am I going to be replacing that every week too? I’ve also read about that ratio crystallizing; honestly I don’t know what’s best! I understand they are approximate measurements but when it comes to what would last longer in a little container in case of emergencies, is one better than the other? If you could help me out I’d be grateful, I’d hate to leave them suffering when I could’ve helped, thank you!

    • Maddie,

      If you want to keep it in your car or carry it with you, I suggest putting the sugar in one container (like a test tube or small jar) and the water in another. Then, should you run into an ailing bee, just mix the two together. That way, you don’t need to constantly check for mold or fermentation.

        • Maddie,

          Let me know if you ever use it. Better, yet send a photo.

          Sounds like something I should add to the “bee bucket” that I keep in my truck.

          • I ordered some keyring waterproof pill capsules and put sugar in one and water in the other, like you suggested and I’ll combine them only when needed. If I ever have to use it, I’ll definitely send a photo!

    • Maddie, If you buy something called “Honey B Healthy” and mix that into the sugar water it will last much longer before it spoils. It is also an attractant for honey bees and makes them more susceptible to drinking the sugar water. If you only want a small amount and not purchase a bottle, find a local beekeeper and ask if they could give you a small amount.

  • When I first installed my potted blueberry plants, my bees decided that one of them was a fabulous watering hole (all those minerals from fresh potting soil, y’know). Once as I was watering the pots, I stumbled and dumped it in precipitously, and in the ensuing wave, one poor girl was knocked off her perch and submerged. I started to think, “Should I try to fish her out? and how??” but before the thought was even complete, she emerged like a breaching whale, flailing her wings and several legs. She climbed onto the nearest piece of mulch and seemed ready to resume her errand. Which is not to say I haven’t seen drowned bees in other pools of water, but this particular bee was quite capable of taking care of herself.

  • Last summer there were dead bees in the bowls below my flower pots. Not sure why they were there, but they were floating and looked drowned. How can I stop them from doing that?

    • Leslee,

      Bees seem to love flower pots. Most likely they are attracted by the odor. I think you could put small stones or marbles in the dish below the pot. Extra water would still drain out, but bees would be less likely to drown.

      Anyone else have an idea?

    • Josh,

      That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer. Perhaps some or more cautious than others, or perhaps some have better vision than others, or perhaps some are better fliers than others? I’m just guessing. But I’ve seen that behavior too, and I’ve wondered the same thing.

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