In mid-June 2018, Facebook removed a page pretending to be that of famed naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. A post from this fake account spreading misinformation about bees had gone viral, encouraging people to “save” “exhausted” bees by feeding them sugar water and inspired the hashtag #savethebees:
In the last 5 years the bee population has dropped by 1/3. If bees were to disappear from the face of the earth, humans would have just 4 years left to live. This time of year bees can often look like they are dying or dead, however, they’re far from it. Bees can become tired and they simply don’t have enough energy to return to the hive which can often result in being swept away.
If you find a tired bee in your home, a simple solution of sugar and water will help revive an exhausted bee. Simply mix two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water, and place on a spoon for the bee to reach. You can also help by sharing this post to raise awareness.
As described by Australian beekeeper Chris Wyatt in a well-shared Facebook post, social media users quickly escalated the remedy, going so far as to advocate using bird-feeders filled with sweet water to help save bees en masse: “The suggestions on posts I’ve seen started with a teaspoon of sugar syrup for a solitary fatigued bee and have progressed to suggestions of filling birdbaths and buckets with syrup with floats/pebbles.”
Beekeepers do, in some cases, feed their bees supplemental sugar at times when nectar is not plentiful. When done correctly, this process can protect a colony and strengthen it for future honey production. But nearly all bee experts and apiculturists agree that unless you know what you are doing, feeding bees found in your backyard likely does them more harm than good.
First, supplemental feeding with plain sugar water is not an ideal solution for the bees, because sugar water does not contain any of the protein, lipids, minerals, and vitamins found in the pollen collected and fermented by bees. Instead, it is merely an empty energy source that can, if overused, reduce the colony’s fitness and alter its behavior. Experiencing prolonged periods without protein, for example, can lead to adults’ cannibalizing their larvae:
Colonies without pollen supply maintain brood rearing only for a short time, first by using up the stored bee bread and later by depleting their body reserves. Honey bees have developed a mechanism to react to changes in the ratio of pollen supply and protein demand of brood: they cannibalize brood and thereby gain protein which they use to feed other larvae.
Some beekeepers use nutritional supplements to add these crucial nutrients to their supplemental bee feedings, but this is another area in which professionals urge caution. In his post, Wyatt worried that people might think to offer bees other, inappropriate food sources: “One post even had people saying they buy honey from the supermarket to feed bees!” he lamented.
Feeding honey to honeybees, which is actually against the law in Australia, increases the risk of transferring pathogens to a colony and ultimately destroying it. “In Australia we’re really kind of privileged in that we don’t have some of the pests that are really impacting on colonies overseas, but one thing that is a problem here is American foulbrood, which is a bacterial disease that is spread through the feeding of honey,” Wyatt told Australia’s ABC News.
Feeding bees sugar is also not likely to be that much help to those insects, either. Australian Honey Bee Industry Council executive director Trevor Weatherhead told reporters that “If [a person] saw a honey bee out on its last legs and they went to feed it some sugar and water, there’s every likelihood they’ll get stung and the bee will die in any case.”
Bees, as noted in the fake Attenborough post, are a vitally important resource on which our modern agricultural food system wholly depends, thanks to their crucial role in pollinating food crops. But the claim that in the absence of bees humanity would cease to exist in four years appears to have been pulled out of thin air.
In North America and Europe, Colony Collapse Disorder, a poorly understood phenomenon that causes worker bees to abandon and therefore destroy their colonies, became an increasing concern in the early 2000s, stoking fears over pesticide use and the future of farming. Recent work suggests that the phenomenon, while still a threat to bees, is itself in decline:
The number of commercial U.S. honeybee colonies rose 3 percent to 2.89 million as of April 1, 2017 compared with a year earlier, the Agriculture Department reported. The number of hives lost to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon of disappearing bees that has raised concerns among farmers and scientists for a decade, was 84,430 in this year’s first quarter, down 27 percent from a year earlier.
Even if feeding bees were harmless, though, it is unlikely that rescuing a single bee with a spoonful of sugar water would appreciably affect the viability of future bee populations or agriculture. Scientists say a more effective way to help bee populations would be to plant more flowers.