How To Tell If A Bee Is Dead Or Sleeping

As more and more people grow increasingly concerned about bees, I am sometimes asked how to tell if a bee is dead or sleeping, and whether a bee they are observing is dying or tired (simply resting).  

This can sometimes be challenging, especially given that a bee is able to remain motionless whilst sleeping.

However, there are visual signals you can look out for that will make it obvious in some scenarios.

How To Tell If A Bee Is Dead Or Sleeping

dead bumble bee  laying on its side - how o tell if a bee is dead or sleepingA dead bumble bee

The postures for a dead bee, versus a sleeping bee are actually quite different.

Dead Bee Posture
To identify whether or not a bee has died, look out for these clues:

  • The bee is motionless, and the body of the bee is often somewhat curled up and lying on its side.
  • The bee is motionless and lying on its back. 
dead honey bees - how to tell if bees are dead or asleepDead honey bees

Posture Of Sleeping Bees
Sleeping bees can have variable postures depending on species, however:

  • A bee that is merely asleep tends to be resting with its body adjacent to a surface (such as a leaf, flower or ground) or;
  • May be clinging motionless inside a flower, or onto a leaf, flower stem or twig.
  • Antennae and wings take on a relaxed and often drooping position with many species.
a bumble bee asleep on a leaf.  Wings are relaxed on the body, legs are relaxed and antennae are drooping rather than alert.Note the relaxed antennae and posture of this bumble bee snoozing on a leaf

I have written a whole page called Do Bees Sleep? where you can see more photographs.

Where Are Dead Bees Found?
Dead bees are usually found on the ground or other flat surface.  However, finding a bee in such a position does not automatically mean the bee is dead, since it is perfectly possible to find bees resting in such locations.

Dead bees are sometimes found in multiples or groups. 

For example, it's not uncommon for several dead bumble bees to lay scattered close to or below a nest entrance

These dead bumble bees will have been removed from the nest to maintain hygienic conditions for the rest of the bumble bee colony.

Likewise, multiple dead honey bees can be found thanks to drone eviction in the autumn.  

For further information, see my page about finding dead bees.

Is The Bee Dying Or Tired / Resting?

Bombus pascuorum, the common carder bumble bee, resting on a large stoneA Bombus pascuorum - Common Carder Bumble Bee, simply resting on a stone on the ground.

I often receive emails from frantic readers who are concerned about a bumble bee they have just found, usually on the ground or on a wall. 

tree bumble bee Bombus hypnorum on brick wallThis tree bumble bee Bombus hypnorum remained almost motionless on the wall of our house for some time, before flying off.

The bee is apparently still alive, but practically motionless.

In most cases, it appears to me the bee they are worried about is simply resting.  It's best to allow a bee to continue doing so.

Therefore, if you are considering taking action to help a bee, but are wondering whether a bee is dying or tired, in my view it is generally best to assume the bee is resting, and leave it alone.

When bees are dying....
When bees are dying, they will sometimes be found writhing around on the ground.  

However, a bee's impending death is not always obvious, and some interesting behaviours may be exhibited that might mislead an observer.

For example, bumble bee queens may dig holes in soil to hibernate.

However, a bumble bee infected with a parasite such as Sphaerularia bombi Dufour will also dig a hole in the ground and bury itself there, where it will die.  

Similarly, Conopid flies can also cause bumble bees to dig their own graves.

The whole point is that bees engage in a range of behaviours, and we cannot always know for certain what is going on. 

The best way to help bees...
The best way to help bees is to keep pesticides out of the garden and grow lots of flowers for bees.

Otherwise, allow the bees to do their thing and let nature take its course.

Bombus hypnorum on groundI came across this Bombus hypnorum resting on the ground