Bees, and all living things including humans, have one thing in common. The need for water to survive. Specifically, bees need a clean fresh water source throughout the year.
Worker bees have many hive duties, one of which is collecting water to bring back to the hive. We blogged about the many jobs of worker bees at different times of their lives. And this was a magical blog post about bees and bee baths...
Winter honeybees use water to help dissolve crystalized honey, and soften it from the hardened state it has been in, so they can eat it throughout the winter. Summer honeybees use water to spread droplets at the edges of brood comb, then fan it rapidly with their wings so it evaporates to cool the nest to the required temperature for the wellbeing of baby bees.
This 5:51-minute video by Frederick Dunn shares an experiment he did to figure out what sort of water bees prefer:
Here are a few tips to make sure that the way we provide water for bees helps instead of harms them.
LURE THEM IN WITH SCENT To have your bees establish a water sourcing pattern, some sources suggest that you add a mild dose of salt, sugar or chlorine to the water for a few days until you see the bees are accustomed to that water source. Then you can stop. The reason is that some biologists think bees source water based on smell, so they may go for earthy or chemical smells rather than for scentless pure fresh water.
FRESH CLEAN AND SAFE The water you provide should be the same quality that you would drink. This does not mean fancy, brand name or alkaline water, it simply means that if water is dirty, or contaminated in any way, and that you would not drink it yourself, then don’t give it to the bees either. Dirty water can spread disease and allow harmful organisms to grow in it that will hurt bees.
SHARING AND CARING Remember that bees collect water to bring back to the hive and share with other bees that are not out foraging for water. So, if the water is dirty, it may harm much more than just the bees at the water source. It can harm the entire hive. The water source should be geared solely to bees and not a place where pets or other animals drink. Some bees prefer chemically treated, dirty, or even salt water. If that is the case, there is little you can do to redirect them.
SAVE THE BEES FROM DROWNING Bees like to keep their feet dry. If there is no edge or ledge, place some smooth stones, glass pebbles, wooden cubes, or even twigs into the container so bees can stand safely on them while drawing water. If a bee slides in and starts to drown, other bees may try to rescue her, but they can also drown. Shallow water dishes are best. Think about their tiny little legs, and how fast they can end up underwater if they lean in and then fall in. They can slip off a slick surface, and can’t get out unless they can stand without drowning.
EVALUATE AVAILABLE WATER SOURCES Are there any fountains, swimming pools or ponds in your neighborhood? Fresh water rivers or streams? Most artificial water places like fountains and pools use chemically treated water. That isn’t ideal. Preferably, the water source is close to the hive, so worker bees don't get exhausted when it comes to water collecting.
SOME EASY IDEAS FOR BEE WATER SITES Whether you keep it simple or make it elaborate, bees just need safe access to clean water. This can be accomplished by setting a wood block, saucer, shallow wide bowl, pie pan or glass dish under a faucet that you set to drip very little or one that is leaky. This provides a constant stream of moving water that does not grow stagnant. Set up a natural bird bath or small water fountain that doesn’t require chemicals if you are so inclined, and put ‘stepping stones’ in the bowl of the fountain so the bees can stand on them. Cork, twigs, leaves or pebbles are ideal.
USING FEEDERS FOR WATER Some beekeepers place a feeder with water inside the hive. This is helpful, but be sure you are willing to fill it with water daily and remove the feeder to clean it so it is optimized for bee safety. This is a commitment, so if you are unsure you can keep up the pace, maybe do something that requires less daily engagement.
KEEP THE FLOW GOING Bees are creatures of habit, so once they identify a good water source, they will likely keep using it. Once you set it up for them, please ensure the water continues to flow and that the source doesn’t dry up. That can confuse them and cause them to rethink where they will find water, and possibly even have to settle for a lesser quality or enter into a more dangerous situation. If possible, place the water source in a shaded or partly-shaded place as well.