Help bumblebees – don’t feed them!

  • Dronning av mørk jordhumle Bombus terrestris på blomstrende lønn, Hovedøya i Oslo.
    Arnstein Staverløkk | Norsk institutt for naturforskning

It’s wonderful that people are engaging with insects. But if you find a bumblebee sitting still, the very best thing you can do is leave it in peace. And if you absolutely must help, then move it to a flower. Never feed it honey – that can spread disease.

Help bumblebees – don’t feed them!

Dronning av mørk jordhumle Bombus terrestris på blomstrende lønn, Hovedøya i Oslo.
Arnstein Staverløkk | Norsk institutt for naturforskning via Artsdatabanken CC

Spring is here and it’s bumblebee time – when the panda of the insect world comes careening into your garden, buzzing good-naturedly enough to warm the heart of even the most hardened insect-hater. But is it looking a bit poorly? Could it do with a bit of help? We humans are quick to see human qualities in animals. And a lot of people have realized that insects are struggling and are keen to help. Here are a few facts and tips about what you can do for bumblebees – and what you ought not to do.

First things first: the big bumblebees that appear in spring are bumblebee queens. They’re the only ones that survive the winter – and now each and every one of them must singlehandedly start a new bumblebee colony. When the bumblebee queen comes tumbling out into the spring sunshine, she’s hungry. She needs pollen and nectar to produce a new colony. You can help her by planting trees and flowers that provide this kind of nutrition in springtime. Crocus and willows are great.

It’s a hard life being a bumblebee queen. She needs a lot of rest. New research shows that the queen spends most of her time sitting still, with only short flights in between. In other words if you find an active bumblebee in spring and it is sitting still, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The best thing you can do is offer her your respectful admiration without disturbing her. 

The queen often sits still for up to an hour before pulling herself together enough to make a new flight. It is best not to disturb her royal highness while she’s taking a much-needed breather. That said, if you find a bumblebee queen who’s taking her break in a place where she may get trodden on, or if she stays in the same spot for hours at a time, you could consider moving her to a nectar-rich flower nearby.

Feeding bumblebees isn’t as smart as you might think. Sugar water is only a pale imitation of the real thing, plant nectar. It’s like tempting insects with junk food when they ought to be eating proper meals. In the long run that’s no good for us or the bumblebees. Besides, a bowl of something sweet may distract insects from the flowers they usually pollinate, and that isn’t good for the flowers.

In these corona times, we should also respect the need to protect insects against infection. So you should never give honey to bumblebees or bees, because honey can contain bacteria that lead to foulbrood in domesticated bees. That doesn’t sound great – and indeed it isn’t. These bacteria can survive for years in honey, and if we feed the bumblebee mother honey, she can spread the bacteria to honeybees if they happen to visit the same flower afterwards.

If you’re going to give bumblebees anything at all, make it a 50/50 mixture of white sugar (not brown, which is more difficult to digest) and water, and drip a drop in front of them. But just be aware that you’re mostly doing it for your own sake rather than the bumblebee’s. Don’t set out a whole bowl of sugar water: that’s like throwing a massive party in the middle of the corona crisis – various parasites and microbes can easily be passed from one insect to another.

In conclusion: If you want to help bumblebees, make your garden a glorious flowering jungle from March to October. The best thing bumblebees can get is access to natural floral nectar. And bumblebees that seem tired to you are best left in peace. If necessary, move them up onto a flower. And never, ever give them honey.


Read more about bumblebees here:

In English:

In Norwegian:

Find insect-friendly flowers here:

If you want to do more for bumblebees, you can build a bumblebee box – see Atle Mjeldes instructions here:

Published 30. April 2020 - 17:51 - Updated 16. mai 2020 - 14:34