Water for Bees: Without Drowning
Bees and other insects need access to good water sources. However, it is always surprising to learn how easily they can drown. Honey bees will find water on their own but the quality may not be good. Providing drinking water for bees that is clean and safe to visit is a good thing to do. Whether you are a beekeeper, gardener or just a bee-lover, you can help thirsty pollinators get through the hot Summer.
Do Bees Drink Water?
Insects are living things and all need water or moisture on some level. Bees can be seen gathering water from a nearby stream or pond. Usually, they are on the soft sand along the edge or a dry rock near the water line.
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In the case of honey bees, water may not be initially consumed at the collection site. It is also carried back to the hive and used for several purposes.
Having access to a close water source is especially important for honey bee colonies due to their large population.
Providing Water for Beehives
Having a clean water source is especially important for beekeepers with several hives. These hard working colonies require more water than one might think. This is especially true during the hot days of Summer.
Given our habit of having several hives in one location or “apiary“, the good water for bees is a primary concern. It is important to consider this before as you layout your bee yard – and well before bees arrive on the site.
Perhaps your colonies will find their own natural source. If so, that is wonderful. But, most beekeepers need to establish a suitable drinking spot for their colonies.
They may not always use it and sometimes it may seem that they prefer to drink from a nearby mud puddle. But, you know it is there and it may keep them from traveling a long distance for water.
For urban beekeepers, a natural water supply may be more difficult for your bees to find. Runoff water is often contaminated with fertilizers and other lawn care products. Keep them near home for water.
Foragers are less likely to come into contact with contamination by pesticides or other chemicals if they stay in your yard. A consistent water source with a safe place to drink is especially important in warm months.
Why do Bees Need Water?
Worker bees visit millions of blooming flowers and to collect pollen and plant nectar. They use nectar to make honey and store it inside the hive to use in Winter.
But, water is another thing bees collect and unlike honey it is not stored in comb. Water is used for several purposes in daily colony life. The top two include:
- diluting or thinning honey for easier consumption
- helping control heat and humidity inside the hive
Nurse Bees Feeding Young
The workers functioning as nurse bees often use water to thin honey. Their special mandibular and hypopharyngeal glands provide royal jelly and special brood food substances for very young bee larvae. However, honey is also used a food in the colony and water is used to thin it down.
Water is Used for Air Conditioning
Living conditions inside the hive must be maintained at certain levels for developing young or “brood”.
Controlling internal hive temperature is vital or young may die from overheating. The temperature in the brood nest must stay between 91°F – 97°F.
In addition to harming baby bees, extreme hot temperatures in the hive may allow honeycomb to sag and break.
Water is used to bring down internal temperatures using evaporative cooling. If the temperature rises too high, the colony goes into action. Many droplets of water are placed on the surface of the honey comb.
Then, workers fan their wings to circulate air through the colony. Air passing over the water droplets has a cooling effect.
This “social ventilation” enables colony to keep temperatures in check. Not too hot, just the right temperature.
How Bees Collect Water
On any given day, a percentage of the workers in a colony will be in charge of collecting water. They do not store water inside the hive.
Worker bees fly to visit their favorite water source. The tongue (proboscis) is extended into the water. And, with the same pumping action used to harvest nectar, the bee sucks up the liquid.
Stored in the honey stomach, water is carried back to the hive. Once inside, these bees travel around giving water where it is needed. Think of them as tiny water tanks!
Creating Water Sources For Bees
There are several reasons to provide a bee waterer. Beekeepers develop some ingenious ways to provide bees with drinking water. Thankfully, many of these ideas work well for the homeowner or gardener who wants to help bees and other pollinators too.
Important Tips to Remember
- safe places for bees to drink
- consistent source
Preventing Drowning Bees
Honey bees are one of the most interesting types of insects around. They can do so many miraculous things. Unfortunately, one thing they do well is drown – especially if the water is cool.
How can you prevent bees from drowning in water? Create safe places to drink. Include shallow areas where they can sip water without falling in.
Rocks, sand or pebbles along the waters edge are a good option. Concrete tubs often have rough surfaces for bees to grab.
For the gardener wanting to provide a cute water source, it can be as simple as this clay pot bee water station. Yes it is small but refilling daily in a shady part of the yard is not too hard.
To make it more practical and require less maintenance, take the same idea and make the basin bigger. However, small projects like this small bee waterer are a good opportunity to teach kids about bees.
For the beekeeper, the use of a regular quart jar feeder placed on the front of the hive is popular. This is inexpensive and easy. However, you must never let them run out.
Water Sources Must be Dependable
Small water sources are easy to create but they require more maintenance. It takes some discipline to remember to check any small water source – every day or twice a day.
The same problems applies to small fountains, buckets, etc. When hot weather arrives and your bees really need more water, will you be able to remember to refill?
Water Gardens or Small Ponds
Another way to provide drinking water for bees is with a water garden. I love mine and have had them for many years – even before I had honey bees. This is something almost any homeowner or homesteader can do.
A water garden does not have to be a half acre pond. A small pond of 100-200 gallons in size provides a lot of water.
Yes, you still have to manage the water level but it is a weekly chore rather than daily. This means less monitoring and maintenance.
Honey bees are seen gathering water all year long on warm days. As an added benefit, plant flowers that bees like around the pond area. Remember to include a shallow place for the bees to drink without fear of drowning.
A small pool with some plants and a few goldfish can be an educational and entertaining addition to any backyard. You could even jump in if you don’t mind swimming with the frogs and fishes.
- a shallow bird bath filled with small pebbles to provide a safe place to land
- plastic tubs (or similar) filled with a bit of floating material (pieces of pool noodles etc.)
- a large bucket with a spout that is allowed to slowly drip
- a wide plant saucer filled with glass pebbles
Keeping Bees Out of Neighbors Pool
Bees will go to a nearby swimming pool. And, if your neighbors have a salt water pool – the bees seem to like it even better !
One of the best reasons to provide bees with drinking water – your neighbor has a swimming pool ! (Be a good neighbor, citizen and beekeeper and try to keep your bees out of their swimming pool.
Pre-planning on the part of the beekeeper and understanding on the part of the pool owner can be a great asset. Have a water source in place (closer to the hive than the pool) before your bees arrive.
Providing clean drinking water for bees can be fun and beautiful. Both small and larger features contribute to good pollinator health. Healthy bees are productive bees.
Do you have a corner of your garden with room for a small pond or water feature? A creative water source can be a beautiful part of your bee friendly garden.
Yes, there is not reason no to help a thirsty bee. This is especially true if you live in areas without a lot of natural water sources.
Honestly, bees like dirty water. They will sometimes choose a mud puddle or ditch over a provided source. Don’t worry over much about algae or other natural substances in your bees drinking water.
Bees can and do drink pool water. They love chlorine and seem to especially like salt water pools or hot tubs. In spite of the chemicals in pool water, there is little danger in it harming your bees. Much of the water in the hive is used for cooling etc anyway.