THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN UPDATED SINCE ORIGINALLY POSTED.

We’ve put out water for the honey bees living in our backyard, but they seem to prefer dirty water from puddles around the yard. They specifically seem to favour the moist dark compost soil in our raised garden beds.


Some browsers seem to flatten the video during playback and I don’t know why and I don’t have the patience to fix it. View it on the YouTube page for accurate playback.

Does the soil give off some sort of fake pheromone that attracts the bees? I didn’t know, so I looked up “water” in my excellent 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture (the only edition of the book I could afford) and I learned that the bees bring in more water in the spring during brood-rearing and less water as the honey flow peaks. But more to the point, the bees drink from compost piles (and composted soil) because the water there is warmer than water left in a dish. The bees are able to absorb warm water faster than cold water. So it’s not the stink of the compost that attracts them. It’s the warmth.

I think it’s fair to conclude, from this instance and everything else I’ve observed, that whatever honey bees do, they do it with the utmost efficiency.

UPDATE (a few hours later): The warm water theory doesn’t hold much water. Here’s a shot of the bees drinking freezing cold water leaking from my garden hose all day.

P.S., Read the comments for more thoughts on this topic. The bees have to be attracted to something other than simply warm water.

25 Responses to “Why Honey Bees Drink Dirty Water”

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  1. Rusty says:

    Phillip,

    The following is from a post I wrote about water collection, “Bees seem to prefer water that has some growth in it—such as green slime—rather than perfectly clean water. Some scientists speculate that the reason is simply that the bees can smell it and recognize it as a water source.” (http://wp.me/pLmcw-1y)

    I don’t doubt the warmth theory, but I think there’s more to it than that. Even in mid-summer, the bees will collect from pools of stagnant water.

    • Phillip says:

      I think there’s more to it as well. There has to be. If the stagnant water is simply warmer, then why aren’t the bees drinking water from the water dish where the water is well heated by the sun?

      Our garden hose has a leaky nozzle and a portion of the garden was extra moist where the water leaked out all day today, and the bees were all over it. That soil was in the shade and it was cold, colder than water that was in the sun.

      So there must be something in the soil that’s attractive to the bees.

      • Chelsea says:

        Hey Rusty and Phillip,

        Great post Phillip, and well timed too – I’ve been thinking about how to best “water” our bees a lot lately.

        Our provincial bee inspector mentioned something before about bees also preferring salt water over fresh water. We have several bee yards near swimming pools where the bees will ignore the ditch water in favour of the swimming pool water. Our inspector evidently suggested that it might also be the minerals that the bees like.

        “Our” bees definitely find their way to the water bucket more often once it turns scummy and algae-y.

        Very, very interesting. If either of you hear any more, please let me know! I’m super curious about this.

  2. Marcia says:

    I have wondered this also, maybe they prefer water that has no nasties like floride in it, the water in the soil would also have different nutrients that they need – just a thought.. if you put water out for them, my cats will not drink it till it has settled for a day or so with the chemicals the city puts in it have settled on the bottom, maybe the bees are the same.

  3. Phillip says:

    I have footage (which I’ll try to upload later) of our bees drinking out of the garden hose today, downing water full of chlorine and fluoride, etc., and the water is cold too. Someone needs to get to the bottom of this.

  4. Phillip says:

    Here’s the footage of honey bees in my backyard drinking cold water full of chlorine and fluoride from a leaky garden hose. I’m not sure what’s going on.

    I might leave the hose out like this for now on.

  5. Jill says:

    From what I’ve read on here, it sounds like it is simply a matter of moist soil (or compost) vs. a bucket of water they could potentially drown in?

  6. Michael Bush says:

    Bees are attracted to water because of several things:
    • Smell. They can recruit bees to a source that has odor. Chlorine has odor. So does sewage. So does stagnant water
    • Warmth. Warm water can be taken on even moderately chilly days. Cold water cannot because when the bees get chilled they can’t fly home.
    • Reliability. Bees prefer a reliable source. They will abandon a temporary close site for a more distant reliable site.
    • Accessibility. Bees need to be able to get to the water without falling in. A horse tank or bucket with no floats does not work well. A creek bank provides such access as they can land on the bank and walk up to the water. A barrel or bucket does not unless you provide ladders or floats or both. I use a bucket of water full of old sticks. The bees can land on the stick and climb down to the water.

    • Phillip says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Michael. That all makes sense.

      I eventually settled on three methods to make sure the bees got their water:

      1) Filling a large container with water and wood chips.

      2) Leaving the leaky garden hose on so that a one-foot patch of compost soil is always wet.

      3) Watering the vegetables, many which grow in various type of containers. The bees are all over the garden, anyway, but they seem most addicted to the moist soil around the drainage holes of the growing containers.

  7. Valerie Pallaoro says:

    Hi there,
    interesting – but my bees (or rather Charlie’s bees) like the cat bowls, wet earth, wet concrete (overflow from tank watering) and mostly my bonsai.
    While Charlie is of the “bees drink dirty water” frame of mind, they don’t drink any of the water he puts out. Because it is dirty! Significantly, I think, all my water is, even if tank water, fresh poured on the day they drink from it. They drink from the cat bowls and drown in it (when they over topple off the edge), and suck up water from the moss on the bonsai (much safer). They drink very little in winter and heaps in summer – even more bees come on a very hot day. I’ve had to move my bonsai out the back of the block during summer as the cloud of bees is disconcerting to walk through.
    So, I don’t think they drink dirty water, but settled water, even water in the bonsai pots is leaving the drainage pan by evaporation any way and so chemically cleaner than when I put it in.
    What do you think? I’d really like Charlie to put out clean water and attract all his bees back to his water source.

    • Phillip says:

      Hi Valerie,

      Everything you said coincides with much of what’s been discussed about this topic in the previous comments. The bees like warm water, water they don’t drown in, and are attracted to it by its odour.

  8. Vicki Double says:

    Hello! I found your interesting website today as I was looking up “How much water do honey bees need per day? There are honey bees coming to our Bird bath for the last few days. The first day I noticed, we were thrilled to see them (being that there are fewer honey bees around), but low and behold, later in the day when I checked, there were approximately five bees dead from drowning. I felt so badly about that. I placed some rocks in the middle to give them an “island” and they seem to like it. Also, water evaporated today, leaving the bird bath just half full and they seems to be doing well with that situation.

    Now I have a question I hope you can answer – are we providing “fast food” for the birds when they come?

    Thanks ever so much,

    V. Double

  9. Barbara says:

    What about water in the winter? I’ve been wondering if bees need water during the bitter cold weather and if so where would they find it?

  10. Phillip says:

    Hmm, I don’t like to answer questions about things I haven’t experienced myself. I’m a reformed academic. Advice based on extensive reading instead of extensive experience is an artifice of hubris, and I’ve seen too much of it. I just want to punch people who fall for that junk, and punch myself when I go off like I’m so sure of what I’m saying because I read it in a book. Anyhoo…

    I don’t know what to say about bees drinking in bird baths. I’ve read that bees love the salt from treated water full of chlorine and other chemicals. Bees supposedly go crazy over swimming pools. But does it provide birds with fast food, a nice quick meal of bees? I don’t know. I’ve read that birds eat bees, but I’ve never seen it myself or heard from anyone else that birds will go for the bees around bird baths. Either way, I wouldn’t worry about it. A few dead bees in a birdbath (or eaten by birds) aren’t likely to affect a colony with 40,000+ bees. I doubt they’d be missed.

    I have no idea how much water a colony needs every day. I read something about it somewhere, but I forget. I assume the amount of water a colony needs depends on the time of year, whether they’re trying to cool the hive by evaporating water, etc. I don’t worry about giving our bees water. They do fine drinking from our garden hose and puddles around our yard.

    As for water in the winter, from what I’ve seen, I’d say there’s plenty of moisture in the hive already. Condensation from the bees’ breath, evaporation from opened honey cells and the extra condensation from the cold — that’s seems like plenty of water to me.

    I live in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the wettest places in North America. A lack of water for the bees — spring, summer, fall or winter — is not an issue. That’s been my experience so far.

  11. mel says:

    This works really well for me. I always worry about the bees drownding. I use the pink insulation that comes in the big sheets. Not fiberglass. I use just small pieces and trim the edges, so they slant downward making little slopes to very thin all the way around the pieces about 9 X9 inches. I float them in the bird bath and the bees will come and nearly cover the pink floats. It’s really fun to just stand there and watch the incoming and outgoing as they are buzzing by. If one happens to fall in they have the perfect edge to crawl back onto the foam.

    • Vicki Double says:

      Mel: Good morning. What pink insulation and big sheets are you talking about? I did put some rocks in the birdbath which seemed to help – gave them a better footing.

      V. Double

  12. lynn says:

    we had such a problem with bees last year using the pool as a watering dish landing on the pool noodles and floaties. we had to put the cover on for a few days and scent their bird bath with pool water. I suppose a bit of honey would of worked too but I hate the wasps that come around. after we took away their “pool” drink we used the cover when not in use

  13. I enjoyed this video of bees drinking. There has been some discussion on other blogs about why bees drink dirty water – http://afrenchgarden.wordpress.....igression/

    On my beekeeping course it seems that they are just not very fussy about the water they drink and once they become accustomed to collecting water from a particular site, they don’t bother to find anywhere else!

  14. Thomas says:

    there are bees in one of the four water troughs. They are landing on the cement wall, then climbing down the inside of the wall to the water to drink. The cows seem to be afraid of the bees, and will only drink from the other water trough in the pasture field.

  15. Pom Trahern says:

    I have been digging a pond and noticed many bees dropping by to get at the fresh wet mud. I wondered if the mud gave sufficient nutrients for them as they climb into the holes made by my gardening fork.
    I looked on the internet to see if there was anything about the subject and came across this forum. It makes sense about the water however there is a lot of water at the base due to the rain we have had yet they like to go abit higher up and as I said into the holes.
    It has been fascinating watching them. They arrive early and dont leave until around 8pm, they seem to arrive in squadrons, hang around being busy before leaving. There are a constant flow of them coming and going, I wouldnt like to guess how many through the day but 100s if not more. They dont seem bothered by me digging away and I havent had any problems with them, I actually like hearing them buzz around me as I work. I feel I am doing something positive for the bees of Warwickshire.
    Has anyone else done some digging and experienced this?

  16. Daniel Robertson says:

    I’ve just had the same while digging fence posts Quite a clay like soil). They were flying right in the hole while I was digging it. No sure why. I speculated, salts in the mud, clay for building, just the water and even temperature. It was quite shaded and cool in the holes while it was a pretty warm day. I’m thinking of digging a hole and supplying slow constant source of water. They seemed to much prefer the holes over any other wet soil or clay lying around.

  17. E. West says:

    For the last several years we have had a multitude of honey bees at our bird baths. I must admit I do not keep the bird baths clean, and the bees seem to be most attracted to the mossy areas at the sides of the bird baths. I put clean water in the bird baths at least once a day, and the bees swarm around me, but never try to hurt me. I find this very interesting, and would like to understand why this is happening.

  18. Valerie Power says:

    I have also been digging a pond out and noticed bees coming and going from the site. On further inspection I noticed more and more bees coming and going. They have been making small holes were the ground is wet. Going in and out of these holes all day. I hope they are not trying to make nests as I would hate to destroy the bees when digging. It is a pleasure to see bees now days in Dorset as not many about. If anyone knows more about these bees please let me know.

  19. Anne-Marie says:

    Last year bees raided all the humming bird feeders in about two days which didn’t surprise me given that the water is sweet. But this year, just this week, they are ignoring the feeders and have formed a warm brown double ring around my shallow bird feeder, coming and going quickly. The water is a few days old, warmish, and the basin is a stone aggregate, so pretty bumpy with lots of holding spots. I replenish it the morning with a slow stream. I love watching them pulse like little hearts, and they are so single minded they do not bother with us at all. I’m thrilled to see so many since the farmers in the area are saying there are fewer and fewer. I wish I knew from where they were coming, commercial or wild hives (we have woods, swamp, open meadows and orchards near by) as I would like to know them better and support them during this crisis in some small way. From Northern Michigan, 5-31-14.

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