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Innovative Watering Options for Backyard Beekeeping
Honeybees need a year-round source of water, but during the summer when temperatures soar, having a reliable water source can mean the difference between life and death for the colony. Bees need a water source that doesn’t go dry and one that provides a way for bees to drink without drowning.
Bees need and use water for several purposes. In the summer, they use it for evaporative cooling purposes, dispersing water droplets along the edges of the brood comb or a thin film on top of the sealed brood comb. Then the bees rapidly fan their wings to set up air currents to evaporate the water and cool the nest, keeping the temperature perfect for developing and hatching brood.
On extremely hot days, these cooling currents prevent the wax from melting. A hive can go through several liters each day. Bees also use water to digest and metabolize their food and in the creation of larvae food.
The same way that bees carry nectar, they carry water to the hive ... in their crop. Once a forager bee begins to carry water for the day, she will continue to do so for the rest of the day, bringing her load of water to the hive and passing it off to a water-carrying bee.
She will then return to the water source and repeat the process until she can no longer find a house bee willing to accept her load of water. At that point, she knows the colony has the water it needs and switches to foraging for something else.
Bees Use Scent to Find Water
Bees travel at high speeds high in the air, so how do they locate water? Biologists believe bees probably use scent to locate a suitable water source. So, what smells attract them? Scientists think bees are attracted to the smell of:
- Wet earth
- Aquatic plants
- Water that smells like the ocean
Because of its smell, even highly chlorinated water in a swimming pool has a better chance of being found over clean water from the tap.
Creative Watering Solutions for Bees
Whatever means you choose; your beekeeping journey will be easier if the water source is safe. Bees don’t swim well, and an improper water source could result in death to your bees, often lots of them, as they attempt to get sufficient water to the hive from a deadly water source.
Water that flows quickly or that is located in a steep-sided container is dangerous to a bee. Knowing this, beekeepers have come up with interesting solutions to provide their bees with water. Here are some methods you can use to create a safe watering station for your bees:
- A container (bucket) or birdbath with landing pads floating on the water - anything that floats will work such as sponges, corks, sticks and packing peanuts
- A wide shallow saucer filled with stones or marbles that are partially submerged, forming small islands in the water on which the bees can land
- A half-barrel planted as an aquatic garden with aquatic plants and lily pads
- A koi pond
- A hummingbird feeder filled with water
- A chicken waterer with pebbles extending above the water’s surface
- Allow a leaky faucet to drip onto a board
- Even a leaky house or sprinkler head allowed to slowly leak
Sometimes, however, bees may prefer another watering source over the one you provide. And although it may be fun to watch them as they bob on a cork in your water source, the important thing is that they are getting safe water somewhere.
Once bees find a reliable watering source, they will return to that source repeatedly. If it’s important to you to be able to provide that source, you’ll need to establish your source as their go-to spot before they find their own.
The best water sources are close, but not too close to the hive – in the vicinity of 100 feet or so.
Leading Bees to Your Water
How do you attract bees to your watering station? Some beekeepers use a weak sugar solution, others a small amount of chlorine bleach (one teaspoon to a bucket), and some add a handful of ground oyster shells to the water (bees like a salty ocean smell).
Once the bees are using the source you have provided, they will return to it again and again, at which point you can quit adding sugar, chlorine or oyster shells.
By providing water for your bees, you ensure the water they are using is not harmful to them. Bees will use whatever water is available, even if it is filled with pesticides. Bees may also share their “watering holes” with other colonies, spreading illness and disease (if present) between the two.
Water containers will need to be cleaned and the water changed regularly. This is especially important to prevent mosquito larvae from forming. Avoid using watering stations from sick colonies for a healthy bee colony.
Providing a water source for your bees can make your beekeeping journey easier and more successful for you and safer for your bees.