Watering Bees

Many backyard beekeepers seem to go into a panic about providing water for their bees. I don’t see how it’s even a problem in a wet place like Newfoundland. But I guess we have dry spells from time to time and it might be a good idea to keep water out for the bees so they don’t congregate around some neighbour’s swimming pool.

A bucket of water and peat moss. It might work after the peat has begun to rot, but I gave up on it.

In my experience, the magic ingredient is stinky dirt or pieces of half rotten wood that can float in the water — something that gives off an odour that’s attractive to the bees. That black earth boggy compost smell seems to be a winner with most of the honey bees I’ve known. Also, the more money and the more effort that’s put into creating a source of water for the bees, the less likely they are to use it.

I’ve written about this before, but for me, the chicken waterer works well because it can hold water that will last for days (much larger chicken waterers about the size a bucket probably work even better), though a large terracotta clay plate full of stick and rocks does a pretty good job too.

A bowl full of marbles and water is a pretty way to provide water for bees if you can fill it every day. I still think anything with stinky dirt works best.

Chicken Waterer for Honey Bees

I set up a bowl full of marbles to provide water for my bees last year. It’s very pretty and it works, but I’ve recently switched to using a chicken waterer instead:

Honey bees drinking from a chicken waterer. (July 14, 2016.)

Honey bees drinking from a chicken waterer. (July 14, 2016.)

The bowl full of marbles isn’t difficult to maintain, but the I prefer the chicken waterer because, for me, it’s more practical.

Postscript (10 days later): Now that we’re at Newfoundland’s height of summer (I guess), the bees are on the chicken waterer all the time and seem to suck down about a litre of water every two days. At any rate, that’s how often I refill the Mason jar. A larger bucket-sized chicken waterer would probably work too.

How to Attract Honey Bees with a Leaky Hose

Here’s a short video that documents some common honey bee behaviour: Drinking from a leaky garden hose and fanning around the hive entrance.

Forget about planting flowers to attract honey bees. If you want to see honey bees up close, take a leaky garden hose and let it leak over a hard surface like rocks or concrete, or a stinky surface like composted soil. The bees love it, especially in the spring.

Stinkin’ Dirt Never Tasted So Good

I noticed my drinking dirty water last May. They seem to love the minerals from the dark composted soil in my raised garden beds. They’ve been at it again for the past few days.

Honey bee drinking dirty water. (March 30th, 2012.)

Bee drinking dirty water. (March 30th, 2012.)

April 2019 Postscript: Many urban beekeeping areas have policies in place to ensure that beekeepers provide a nearby water source for their bees. Part of the reason for this is to reduce the likelihood of bees crowding around neighbourhood pools to get a drink. Judging from my experience and online conversations I’ve had with reputable beekeepers and researchers, it seems that honey bees love stinky water, including highly chlorinated water in swimming pools. I’ve used marbles in a water dish to provide water for my bees (with okay results). I’ve used a bucket full of water and peat moss (which sounds great but didn’t do much). I’ve use clay, or terracotta, plant pot saucers filled with water and rocks and bits of branches (which, for me, works better than the other two). But a leaky garden hose, especially if the water has chlorine, seems to work best. The hose can leak over rocks or concrete or organic soil, just about anything. Whatever produces the most stink and warmth seems to attract the most bees. Although I haven’t tried it yet, boardman or entrance feeders filled with water might be the easiest way to water the bees.

Dr. Rachael Bonoan, whose curiosity I admire, studied the mineral preferences of honey bees when drinking water, an area of study that stemmed from her observation of honey bees drinking dirty water. She concluded that honey bees likely drink dirty water as a way to supplement the minerals in the floral diet. She said, “Dirty water is like a vitamin supplement for bees.”

Why Honey Bees Drink Dirty Water

February 2019 Introduction: This post generated a lot of discussion in the comments, even comments from fairly well-known American beekeepers, Michael Bush and Rusty Burlew. It’s from a time when this blog was actually being read by thousands of people, with lively comments and discussions happening every day. Anyway, the comments are worth reading more than the original post.

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

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.

August 2019 Postscript: Dr. Rachael Bonoan, whose curiosity I admire, studied the mineral preferences of honey bees when drinking water, an area of study that stemmed from her observation of honey bees drinking dirty water. She concluded that honey bees likely drink dirty water as a way to supplement the minerals in the floral diet. She said, “Dirty water is like a vitamin supplement for bees.”