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.”

41 thoughts on “Why Honey Bees Drink Dirty Water

  1. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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. 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. 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. 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?

  5. 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.

    • 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.

      • You don’t have to do anything nearly as extravagant as wood chips. Just throw a tea bag into your water and that is enough from bees.

  6. 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.

    • 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

    • Thank you, Philip, for the information. I’ll look you up every so often.

      V. Double

    • I have put a natural sponge in my birdbath in hopes that the bees would use it. They did, but it was 26 degrees last night and it froze, along with the bees. Help!

  10. 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.

    • 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

      • I suspect he means the big styrofoam boards that come in the same size and shape as the gypsum, or dry-wall, sheets which they are designed to insulate.

        I use this same stuff underneath my telescoping top to discourage condensation in the winter.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. My neighbor just approached me about my honey bees in his backyard. A few years ago he put in a swingset for his kids and mulched around the base. It has become a very wet mulch pad as he has poor drainage. Now, the mulch appears to be breaking down and looks like black compost. I went to check out the bees and sure enough there are several hundred walking around on this soupy mulch. Their home is about 75 feet away from the mulch. I live in central PA and today is about 46 degrees and windy. I have heard before that bees like mud. This is evidence of that. I wander if because it is cooler out and this is a closer source if that is what has drawn them? All the posts are interesting and a help!

    • Louise, Michael Bush’s response might answer your question:


      My guess is the bees are attracted to the stink of the mulchy water. The stink makes it easier for them the home in on the location. Even at 75 feet away, it’s probably the easiest and safest water source for them at the moment.

      If it’s a problem for the kids on the swing, perhaps you could set up a closer, more attractive water source for the bees using perhaps a leaky hose and some compost, maybe pour in some sugar syrup with anise to attract them to the area and then make sure it stays attractive to them by not letting it dry up. Maybe. It’s not easy to make bees do you want them to do.

  19. My husband noticed honey bees drinking out of a childs’ sand bucket 3/4 full of water with a burnt piece of wood which was half in and half out of the water. We now make sure the bucket always has water in it and the bees love it. they sit on the wood and either drink from the charcoal which absorbs the water or from the edge of the water near the wood. We have never found a dead bee. More interesting is even though the bucket is kept full all spring and summer the bees only use it mid August through fall. Does anyone have an idea why? Once they start it is a continuous flow. This has happened for about 5-6 years, the same each year. Sometimes the water is dirty from sitting for a while and sometimes fresh town water. minutes after we fill it with town water the bees are back even if it was dry for a few days. it is at a cottage so sometimes we aren’t there to make sure it is filled. So dirty, clean or with treated town water they always use it in the late summer. Anyone know if honey bees like the burnt wood for any reason?

    • The bees need more water in August and the fall because, at least where I live, that’s the hottest time of the year, when they need water to help regulate (or cool off) the temperature of the brood. The queen begins to shut down for the year most noticeable when the temperatures begin to take a dip. After that, the bees don’t need evaporate water to cool off the hive. That’s my best guess anyway.

      The burnt wood must have a scent that attracts the bees. It probably contains certain minerals that they can use too.

  20. I am in Australia and we are having some very hot weather. Bees have been swarming around my very young Avacado tree settling on top of the soil in the pot. I have never seen this before and would like to know why are they doing this.

    • Jeanette, I can only take a guess and it’s this: The bees water source may have dried up due to the hot weather and the avocado tree is holding moisture around the base that the bees can drink.

      If you set up a leaky hose and let it moisten some soil or rocks somewhere, you’d probably see the bees descend on that too.

  21. Thanks everybody for an interesting and informative discussion string.
    I’m in Australia too. My next door neighbours have had a problem with their watering system and being downhill our place has been inundated for the last two weeks. They turned their water off yesterday and this morning I went to check if the water ingress had subsided and found a patch in the middle of the lawn with green slime in it. It came to my attention because 5 -10 bees were buzzing about. On close inspection they appeared to be drinking or taking something from the slime. I didn’t know that bees needed water. I’ll have to put some sticks or drinking facility in our bird bath now.
    Thanks for the information

  22. Thanks so much for all the posts…I have new raised beds that are still pretty leaky at this point and just noticed the bees all over the puddles and wood chips. Being a beginner keeper, I was concerned that the bees were in trouble, but sounds like they were just being bees.

  23. I have an old rusty fireplace in the garden that filled up with water. the neighbour has bees and at any time I can see 6-7 drinking. I added a board so in case they fall they can get back out. my question: is this water good for them? it has rust everywhere and I just wonder if this might have some implications?

    • The rusty water and any wet ash is probably fine for them, lots of minerals they can use. It should be safe as long as there isn’t any kind of petrochemicals or plastics burnt inside the fire.

      • thanks Phillip that makes me happy as I am a fan of bees and hope the neighbour let me have some honey of hers :) glad that I can provide a space they like andand that’s good for them.

  24. My bee neighbors had taken over the birdbath on the ground. This was a problem because that water was for our chicken neighbors, cats and whoever else wanted it. . So , I took another bird bath, added rocks to the water. The bees moved into that. The ground bird bath was moved. So now everyone is happy. The bees love the rocks and I fill it every night. We love watching them.

  25. “The Choice of Drinking Water by the Honeybee” by C.G. Butler, Entomologist in Charge of Bee Research Laboratory, Rothamstead Experimental Station, published in July 1940, helps to explain this phenomenon. The methods, experiments, results conclusions, summary and references are all there. You can access it at https://jeb.biologists.org/content/jexbio/17/3/253.full.pdf

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