Bees And Sugar Water – A Story Of Our Times

What do bees have to do with sugar water? When I was a child I used to rescue bumblebees trapped in the house and plonk them on a flower in the garden. They’d take a sip of nectar and invariably revive. A saucer of sugar and water is apparently the modern version. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says you can particularly help Queens in winter this way. Of course, many of the workers you might see struggling on the ground in summer can only briefly be revived – they are most likely on the way out anyway. That’s true with bells on for honeybees. Beekeepers sometimes feed them inside their hives with a sugary syrup, to bump up their food supplies over the winter.

So far so good, but this is where it starts to get weird.

Someone pretending to be David Attenborough put a post on a Facebook Page with some – ahem – what you might call “alternative facts” about bees. It also included the claim that “tired” bees can be revived and will return to their “hive” after a reviving sugary water cocktail. I say “hive” in inverted commas as I’ve only ever seen this done with bumblebees, which of course have nests. Anyway, this is what the page offered by way of advice to help bees. It has been shared half a million times (and counting!). Country Living, Heart FM, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and even Radio Four* are reporting the story as if it did actually come from Sir David. Blimey, the power of Attenborough, even pseudo Attenborough!

Judging by the comments, soon everyone who reads this post is putting out saucers with sugary water in. They’re not interested in the right flowers, or nest sites for bees, or not using pesticides. All they care about is Sir David’s sugar and water. Some top up their sugar water every morning. Others take things to another level and buy sugar water feeding stations.

This is all very odd, but offers some useful lessons.

I get terribly depressed by the Press. They endlessly plead with us to support them, as they report with veracity. I don’t know much about much, but there have been a couple of recent stories (this and, less surprisingly, a Daily Mail report on Climate Change) which I absolutely know have included falsehoods. These stories have been widely circulated and have done damage by promoting an – at least – unhelpful agenda. In this instance the story accompanying the sugar and water advice was alarmist and completely wrong.

Does this matter? After all, its good to get people engaging with bees, surely. It’s a small thing anyway. Yes it really, really does matter.

Firstly, I have an issue with warnings about impending ecological apocalypses, as I have written before. People hide under the kitchen table. They get apocalypse fatigue. Worse, they don’t like it when they’re told there’s an apocalypse coming and it doesn’t. For the record, yes, bumblebee and solitary bee numbers crashed in the back end of the twentieth century and they’re broadly speaking under pressure, with some species in really worrying decline.

Secondly, the page isn’t written by David Attenborough. Its author is doubtless well meaning, but whoever it is, it’s not him. This kind of thing undermines his credibility and the credibility of any other authority. Not to say Facebook’s – if it has any. People absolutely believe David Attenborough is writing the stuff on this page.

Bee sugar waterMy last complaint is more subtle but just as important. People are increasingly removed from the natural environment. This is why giving bees sugar and water is a much more appealing message for them than giving them nectar and pollen via the right sorts of flowers. We must do everything we can to reconnect people to this sort of relationship, not distance them further from it. You’re really not helping if you pave over the flowerbeds in your front garden and put a saucer of sugar and water out instead. Growing wildflowers is one way to go. Growing the right kind of garden flowers even in a small planter really helps and isn’t difficult either. It is itself a great pleasure.

*I had an apology from the BBC, and this now on their website:

In the introduction to a Nature Notes item about bees we referred to a Facebook post from Sir David Attenborough. However we quoted from a fan page on Facebook and not a site connected with Sir David personally. We should not have quoted the remarks or its statements about bee populations. We apologise for the error.

TBH, I’m not sure how many of the half a million who shared the post might read this. Interestingly though the FB page has disappeared, apparently at the BBC’s behest. They apparently have a hotline to FB to ask for this sort of thing. I wish we did.

Garden Flowers For Bees

Perfect For PollinatorsWhen people ask me to recommend garden flowers for bees I usually point them at the excellent Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes. Like most of us, though, I often wander through the local garden centre to buy plants for the garden. I try to buy flowers which are good for bees and other pollinators. I had thought that the RHS “Perfect for Pollinators” badge was a definitive guide to help me. Not so, apparently – nor are a number of other similar schemes and labels.

A study has just been released by the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University. They spent time in local garden centres where they found that “there were many recommended varieties that were unattractive or poorly attractive to insects, and some non-recommended varieties that were very attractive”. The report also points out the difficulties of recommending many different varieties and hybrids in the same plant group, many of which have misleading pictures on their labels.

Poor for bees and pollinators
No Thanks
I was aghast, to be honest, although it did confirm what I had suspected for a while. How can you say that two wildly different cultivars are both as attractive to pollinators? It explains why some “bee friendly” of “butterfly friendly” flowers in our garden here have disappointed. Roses are a very good example; the open single types of rose – closer relations to wild roses – are very different and much better for pollinators than the popular modern “English Roses”.
Dog rose - bumblebee
Yes Please!

So what’s the answer? The study suggests seeing which plants at the garden centre insects and bees visit most, which seems good advice. Ask yourself too how any self respecting pollinator is going to access the nectar and pollen of the flower you’re looking at.

The labels are a guide but nothing more.