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.”