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Don't bee like me...

I have written about what we can do for bees, but there's also an elephant in the room... what we should not be doing, despite it seeming to be a good idea.

I'm not too proud to admit that I've made mistakes in my pursuit of supporting our bumbly friends. I look back on some of the things I've done with the very best of intentions, and I cringe. I feel ashamed and devastated about some of it. I have decided to humiliate myself in the name of the bigger picture, and share these experiences in the hope that people will learn from my mistakes.

I've not personally done everything in this piece, but I'm aware that these things happen, and that they come from a good place of wanting to help, or of fascination and curiosity. I am in no way deriding people for having done these things - my hope is that we can learn from them, and move on, and not make the same mistakes again.

Feeding a bumblebee honey - this isn't one I've done but it is a prime example of what seems like a good idea, but really isn't. Honey may contain diseases, which could be taken back to the nest. If a bee really is struggling and needs a quick fix to give them enough energy so they can buzz off home, then give them sugar water...

Sugar water - too sugary - ok, this is a mistake I have made and it breaks my heart every time I think about it. Yes, you can give a bee sugar water if they are struggling, but do get the proportions right. It should be 50/50 of white sugar and water. Brown sugar should be avoided as it is hard for them to digest. I was once a little heavy-handed with the sugar and the bee I was trying to save was a messy eater and the sugar water crystallised and the bee seized up as the mixture solidified on it. This was years ago and I still find it hard to think about.

Leaving sugar water out permanently - I've encountered this online and need to stress that we should not be doing it. Sugar water is a last resort, and a quick fix and can be likened to giving a toddler a fizzy drink. Do they like it and will they keep coming back for more? Yes. Is it good for them? No. Bumblebees should be feasting upon nectar and pollen, as they have the nutrients they need and are what should be taken back to the nest. Sugar water should only be given as a last resort, if you are unable to place a genuinely struggling bee on a suitable flower. By all means set up a bee water point; a shallow dish with pebbles or similar for them to drink from, but don't put sugar water in it.

Bringing a bee home - another one I've done once before and hugely regret. I was in central London and spotted a 'pavement bee' - I couldn't just leave it there to be trodden on and I couldn't see any flowers nearby for me to put it on, so I ended up taking it home with me to my bee-balcony. However, bees have a local area. Dr Richard Comont likens it to moving to a new area - you explore a bit and get to know the hangout spots and key landmarks (places the bees know they can forage successfully in) but you don't know every back road; you don't need to. Bees don't have GPS and they don't do 'The Knowledge'. If one is moved any notable distance it simply won't be able to find its way home. As tempting as it is to take a bee to a place you feel is better for it, bees need to be left in the area you found them.

"Bees don't have GPS and they don't do 'The Knowledge'. If one is moved any notable distance it simply won't be able to find its way home."

Jack Reid from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has written a smashing blog on this subject, which you can find here. You should check it out.

'Rescuing' a bee unnecessarily - I've probably done this. Many of us have big bee-loving hearts and if we see something not moving much, we want to help. We associate bees with being active and buzzy and when we see one that isn't, we can be forgiven for being concerned. What I wasn't aware of, is that bees can spend large amounts of time resting. If you're driving down the road and see a runner stopped to catch their breath, you don't proceed to bundle them into your vehicle, take them home, and load them up with cans of sugary drinks. I hope. You don't, right? A bee could simply be resting (they can do this for up to 45 mins, or overnight if they've decided to hunker down there), or they could be towards the end of their natural life, which is sad for us softies, but no amount of 'love' or sugar water can prevent the inevitable. Most of the time it is best to do nothing, or pop them on a nearby flower.

Keeping bees in containers - I admit I have been tempted to do this in the past. If a bee looks to me as though it might need some TLC then the idea of creating a little apartment for it with water, flowers and sugar water seems like it couldn't hurt. But we just shouldn't be doing it. Bees are supposed to be outdoors. Bumblebees evolved to live in cooler, mountainous climates, so aren't bothered by a bit of cold or rain. You may see other people doing it, but it is not the right thing to do; please do not bring them inside in a container. We shouldn't be keeping these wonderful creatures indoors. Popping them on a flower outside is considered a far better option.

Trying to clean off mites - I've seen images of bumblebees with mites on them posted online by concerned bee-lovers met with throwaway comments of 'varroa!' It is a word many of us have heard in passing, and associate with bees and being a bad thing. However, varroa mites are honeybee parasites and not the ones we see on bumblebees, which live in their nests with them and feed on debris. Essentially, they are the bumblebee colony's live-in cleaners. They get to new nests by hitching a lift on overwintering queens. You may very rarely see a bumblebee overburdened with mites but this is doesn't happen often; you'd be surprised how many they can give a piggy-back to. Having mites on board normally presents few problems to a bumblebee in respect of flying. As icky as the mites may appear to us, do not make any attempt to remove them as this stresses the bee and removes the helpful mites. In some instances it may actually kill the bee. The mites are a normal part of the bee-cosystem.

As icky as the mites may appear to us, do not make any attempt to remove them as this stresses the bee and removes the helpful mites.

High-fiving a bee - not one I've done or thought to do, but I've seen this on the internet a lot. If a bee waves its leg at you, it is most certainly NOT asking for a high five, nor is it saying hello. It is a sign that the bee is not happy and wants you to back off. Imagine you were minding your own business and suddenly someone threatening looking approached you, on a course to invade your personal space - you might put up an arm to protect yourself or to try to encourage them to back off. I appreciate that I am anthropomorphising, but we need to get this message out there - if you like bees and want to help them, do not 'high five' them.

Bad bee hotels - (or spider-buffets as I sometimes call them) There's a danger of this section getting a little large but I'll try to be concise. There are pitfalls around bee hotels. Just because something moves in to yours, doesn't mean it is perfect and best for the bee; some will perish in poor conditions and never emerge. Common things to bear in mind:

  • the tubes should be replaceable/cleanable (would you be happy staying in a hotel room that hadn't been cleaned?),

  • there should be an overhang to shelter the tubes from the elements,

  • tubes should be breathable - glass and plastic should be avoided,

  • the 'hotel' should be fixed, not swinging

  • tubes should be deep enough - at least 14 cm in length

  • try to provide cavities with a range of diameters - there are some teeny potential inhabitants that aren't provided for in many 'hotels'

  • sections with pine cones/straw are not of interest to bees

  • tubes should be closed at one end

  • a spread out selection of smaller 'hotels' is better than one large installation. Solitary bees do not aggregate naturally and a high concentration of cavities means an increased potential spread rate of pests/diseases. It also hands birds lunch on a plate.

I bought this pre-made 'bee hotel' because the colour tied in with some of the painting I already had. Tree's Top Tip: don't buy a bee hotel based on its appeal to YOU; think about whether it is any good for the bees and do your research. The tubes were far too short and weren't very secure so fell out, and the bottom section contained pine cones which as you can see, the spiders appreciated, but it isn't good for bees. You'll find sections in commercial bee hotels with pine cones and straw as it is a cheap filler.

Here are three blogs worth reading if you are interested in providing a high quality residence for your visiting bees. This one by Bex Cartwright of the Trust, this one is by Jo-Lynn Teh-Weisenburger. And this is a must-read on the importance of cleaning them by George Pilkington.

Poking about nests - I can see why this would be tempting - you are lucky enough to have a bumblebee choose a nesting site on your property, it doesn't pose any issues for you and you are curious to see how it grows and keep an eye on its inhabitants. This is an understandable feeling. However, you must resist the urge to 'poke about' the nest. Enjoy it from distance.

We were made aware of a queen having chosen an outdoor blanket as her nesting site (it isn't unusual to find bees choosing blankets or clothing that have been left in outbuildings) and the owner of the blanket was very excited. We became concerned as we were seeing update photographs of the cells, and one day the person asked why we thought the bee wasn't visiting any more. Sadly, it seems that the constant disruption by the curious owner, made the bee reconsider her choice and she was never seen again. It is wonderful to have an interest in nature, but we need to be hands-off when it comes to nests. If you want to do something with your hands, take some pictures, plant some flowers, contribute on social media, write a blog... but don't mess about with a nest. Leave it bee.

I was recently given a bit of a hard time because I'd said that if a bee had been taken with someone in a car and driven away from where it was found, it would be unlikely to have made its way back home. Apparently I wasn't being very nice because I made someone feel bad. I truly feel awful about the mistakes I have made, but it isn't about me or my feelings. Or anyone else's. It is after all, not about us, it is about the bees we strive to support. Being aware of the consequences and learning from our mistakes is what will ultimately help us save more little lives.

I hope that sharing this may have been of interest to some. Those of you like me, who have mis-stepped with the best of intentions, can hopefully be reassured that you are not alone and that the main thing is to learn from our mistakes.

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