Editor's note: This article was updated on Aug. 1, in light of the revelations about the original Facebook post and to detail further ways that the public can help support bee populations.
A Facebook post alleging to be from Sir David Attenborough swept across the internet in June. It was shared millions of times and picked up by news outlets across the world.
But the post, which told members of the public to give tired bees a spoonful of sugar mixed with water, turned out to be a fake.
The BBC confirmed the advice didn’t come from Sir David at all, and got Facebook to remove it.
Nevertheless, the fiasco did get everyone talking about the very important issue of bee protection. And it’s got (real) experts sharing all kinds of tips about how the public can help.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), sugar water is only a quick fix for a tired bee — and leaving it out in your garden is, in many cases, counterproductive.
“It’s a nice thing to do and it makes people feel good about themselves, but it’s only a short-term solution for a bee,” said a spokesperson for the RSPB.
“You’re giving it a sugar buzz, but what they really need is nectar,” they added. “What people can do to help is plant flowers that flower all year round.”
“We would not advise leaving out sugar and water as bees will go to this rather than a flower because it is easier and then flowers are not being pollinated,” they said.
Bees need to feed on nectar and pollen — and in turn, they pollinate flowers. If they have easy access to sugar water, however, they’ll go to that instead. Think of it like fast food for bees, in that it’s delicious, but it’s pretty poor in terms of nutritional value.
After the “Attenborough” post, some people began to adapt the suggested recipe to feed bees honey instead. Bees should never be fed honey — the honey we buy from stores has nothing like the nutritional benefits of the honey produced by the bees themselves, and it can lead to the spread of disease.
Manx Wildlife Trust, on the Isle of Man, warned against feeding bees honey, and also warned that some people were being too generous.
“It appears there is a risk of people make it too strong and it blocks the bee’s proboscis,” said a spokesperson for the organisation. “Sugared water should never be left out and only used as an emergency. The solution should not be strong and never use honey.”
Bees play a vital role in global agriculture and food production and, along with other insects, pollinate three-quarters of all crops.
Exhausted bee 🐝 trapped between sash window gaps. Thought he was dead he was so tired from trying to escape - fed him a sugary spoon as per David Attenborough advice and he was revived and FLEW AWAY!! (I’m so late for work now and yes, my sills need cleaned 😳) #SaveTheBeespic.twitter.com/H1NKGqfzAj— Kate M (@sciencekate1) June 15, 2018
The decline in bee populations is due to a number of factors, including climate change, deforestation, and loss of wildflowers, with 97% of flower-rich meadows having been lost since the 1930s, and the use of a strain of insecticides — called neonicotinoids — in agriculture. There’s some good news, however, as the European Union backed a near-total ban on neonicotinoids in April.
So it’s important that we do what we can to help — and the speed with which the so-called Attenborough post went viral shows that the public really want to help.
Here’s are some more ways you can support bees:
1. Plant more evergreen flowers in your garden.
According to Gardeners’ World, there are loads of flowers you can grow to help encourage the bees in your area.
Lavender, alliums, buddleja, and catmint, for example, are all purple. That helps bees because they reportedly see purple more clearly than any other colour.
Meanwhile, tubular-shaped flowers like foxgloves, snapdragons, and honeysuckle are also good for long-tongued bees like the garden bumblebee.
But it’s important to provide flowers throughout the year. You can find more information about flowers that are great sustenance for bees for every season here.
2. Build a bee hotel.
A bee hotel provides accommodation, refreshment, and even breakfast for your local bees. The simplest way, according to Friends of the Earth, is to stuff an old plastic bottle with twigs and stems.
But you can find out all about how to create one here.
3. Choose organic fruit and veg.
Organic produce helps keep bees safe from pesticides and other chemicals. The EU backing the near-total ban on neonicotinoids was an amazing victory for environmentalists — but buying organic also helps farmers reduce their overall use of pesticides.