It’s sticky and humid out. You feel the sweat drip down your back as the bright sun blasts your exposed skin. There’s nothing more satisfying at that moment than a cold beverage, a glass of refreshing water to hydrate you in the summer heat. We’re not alone in our love of and need for water: Bees need water too and it’s your job as a beekeeper to make sure your colony has access to clean(ish – I’ll explain below) water.
Let’s start by talking about the two main reasons honey bees need water, besides drinking.
Both of these reasons are seasonal, so let’s talk about the use of water in the summer first.
Honey bees like to keep their hives a balmy 91-97°F. This is their sweet spot and keeping the hive temperature regulated is super important in summer during the brood-rearing season. Excess heat can prevent brood from completing their cycle (wax can melt in extreme temperatures) and becoming productive worker bees, which is NOT in the best interests of the colony.
So, some of the worker bees that have foraging duties will specialize in water collection. When they leave the hive and find a quality water source, they will use their proboscis and slurp up some of the liquid to take back to the hive. Stored in the crop (it’s not just for honey after all!) it travels with them back to the hive entrance where they deposit the liquid for a house bee to take into the hive.
The house bee will carry the water to the comb, spit it out on the cells, and fan the liquid, which basically serves to air-condition the hive. Yes, bees create their own air conditioning. Cool, right?
In winter, honey bees use water to thin crystallized honey. We’ve talked about this in previous blogs, but crystallization is normal in honey and it occurs faster in certain varieties over others. Obviously, the bees prefer their honey nice and smooth, just like us, so they use water to thin the crystallized honey for consumption.
Remember that honey bees need a large amount of honey to get through the winter and the workers require lots of carbs to continue heating the cluster and protecting the queen. Honey bees that are unable to acquire enough honey for the winter can starve, and starvation is one of the main reasons colony losses happen over the winter.
Water can help prevent starvation. So, now that you know why honey bees need water, let’s talk about how their behavior is uniquely suited to gather water for themselves and their colony.
Honey bees have a few adaptations that lend themselves to collecting water. They include the use of the proboscis, their sense of smell, hydrofoil action of the wings, waggle dances, and specialized foraging behavior.
As I mentioned before, honey bees use their proboscis, their thin, strawlike appendage, to slurp up water. Once they slurp, they store the water in their honey stomach, or, crop, in order to safely transport the liquid back to the hive. The proboscis, in this case, serves to facilitate the transfer of water from a water source to the hive, where the worker bees put it to use.
A study from the University of Toulouse found that honey bees were more sensitive to salty and sweet tastes than bitter tastes. Plus, they were even more sensitive to salty tastes than the sweet. They demonstrated this by observing how quickly and how much the proboscis of a honey bee subject would become active when presented with various flavors; bitter flavors elicited little or no reaction.
Basically, honey bees like mineral-rich water.
The honey bee has a sense of smell, but it operates differently than our own: They don’t have a nose. Instead, honey bees use their antennae and their front legs to “smell” for different substances, including fragrant flowers as well as water.
Now, you may be thinking: But, water is odorless. How do honey bees smell it? Honey bees use olfactory cues to find sources of mineral-rich water. They can smell water that has higher levels of salt, chloride, and other minerals that honey bees seek out. More on that below.
We’ve discussed how honey bees use their wings to fan water droplets in the hive, creating a bee-made air conditioning system. But, they also use their wings to create a hydrofoil action, which prevents them from drowning in water sources. Yes, one of your biggest concerns when providing a water source for your honey bees is to make sure your bees can’t drown in it (they can’t swim).
Check out the Youtube video to watch how honey bees’ wings move in water.
Essentially, if a honey bee falls into a water source, it can attempt to use its wings to create a hydrofoil effect, lifting the bee up off the surface of the water and hopefully to safety. It doesn’t have a 100% success rate though, and you may still find a drowned bee in a pool of water.
Do you know the waggle dance? It’s this amazing series of movements worker bees do to point their companions in the direction of quality forage. It also serves as a communication tool to point their companions in the direction of the water. You’ll make it easier on your bees if that source of water is in close proximity to the hive (100 yards or less).
As I explained before, some honey bees are designated foragers. Usually, they are older work bees, and they are further divided into specializations, water collection being one of them. If these specialized water collectors bring their aqueous load back to the hive, and no house bee moves to collect it, it’s a signal to them that their water isn’t needed and they leave the hive to go look for other resources for the colony: pollen, nectar, or tree resin to make propolis.
One scientific study found that the worker bees with water specialization may be able to find salty water better than their cohorts. Since salt is essential to bees for metabolic processes and brood rearing, these salt-seeking workers play important roles in the colony. Salty water doesn’t come from the tap, but bees know what to look for, and it’s dirty water.
Honey bees like their water with a little seasoning. So, that means they are attracted to salty water, water with chlorine, and water with other minerals like potassium and magnesium. While we don’t know much about honey bees’ requirements for vitamins and minerals, we do know they seek them out in their environment. They look for them more actively in fall when pollen becomes sparse, and they still need their vitamins and minerals to adequately prepare for overwintering.
Typically, they get vitamins and minerals from pollen and nectar, but they will also look for them in water. Do you want to see an experiment showing how bees show different preferences for different types of water? Watch the Youtube video below!
So, after watching that cool experiment, what does this mean for you? It means you can leave that algae on your bee bath. Replace the water so it’s not tepid and stagnant, but don’t mess with leaves, sticks, and other debris in the water.
In fact, when you first provide a water source for your honey bees, consider adding salt, sugar, or chlorine to attract your bees to the receptacle. You don’t need to do this every time you freshen your water, but just initially to help your bees know where to look. Once they find a source of water they like, they will return to it over and over again.
Where else can honey bees find salty water? Your neighbor’s saltwater pool.
When you don’t provide a water source for your colony, they will find a water source wherever they can. Sometimes this means yours or your neighbor’s birdbath. It can also mean your neighbor’s saltwater pool. Honey bees LOVE saltwater pools. The easiest way to avoid any issues with your neighbor or drowned bees is to provide a source close to the hive.
Additionally, honey bees don’t always know (as far as we know) if a water source contains pesticides, runoff, or other undesirables. You may observe your honey bees slurping in the gutters, in puddles in the road, or other places they should probably stay away from.
Again, the best way to protect your bees is to provide them with quality water close to home. Some options for providing a water source include feeders, streams, birdbaths, water gardens, and bee baths. You can invest in fancy feeders if you’d like, but a bee bath is easy to set up and effective.
Storytime: I set up a bee bath in my yard a few months ago when the honey bees started to come out and look for Siberian squill and snowdrop pollen. I’ve yet to see them visit my bee bath, though I do see various wild bees on my wildflowers, including leafcutter bees and multiple types of bumblebees. I do, however, see a great black wasp (I assume it’s the same one) visit that bee bath every day and take its fill.
So, just know that your water source will not remain just for the honey bees and that you may find other insects, some desirable, some less so, enjoying a sip of the good stuff.
Your honey bees need water and it’s your job to provide it for them! Whether you choose a bee bath or a feeder, whether you have a conveniently located stream on your property or you don’t care if they visit your birdbath, make sure to check your water source once a day, especially in summer.
The sunny days can dry up your water quickly and you’ll want to make sure there’s always water available for your bees. Their lives depend on it!