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Water collection by honey bees

Water has several uses in a honey bee hive. During certain times of the year foragers find a source of water, fill their crops, and ferry it home. The number of bees foraging for water depends on the needs of the colony. If the in-hive workers accept the water quickly from the foragers, the foraging bees sense that the need is still high, and they will go back for another load. If the in-hive workers are slow about “unloading” the water, the foragers sense that the need for water has lessened and fewer bees will return for more.

Bees find water in a number of places including damp rocks, branches, muddy puddles, pond edges, and drops adhering to vegetation. They swallow the water and store it in their crops before flying home. The water is transferred to the waiting in-hive workers through the process of trophallaxis—the direct transfer from one bee to another.

Bees rarely store water, but bring it in as needed. In the heat of summer it is used for evaporative cooling. The water is spread in a thin film atop sealed brood or on the rims of cells containing larvae and eggs. The in-hive workers then fan vigorously, setting up air currents which evaporate the water and cool the interior of the hive. The process is similar to the human-designed air conditioner.

Nurse bees, who feed the developing larvae, also have a high demand for water. The nurses consume large amounts of pollen, nectar, and water so that their hypopharyngeal glands can produce the jelly that is used to feed the larvae, and to a lesser extent, other bees in the hive.

A third use for water occurs in the winter. Stored honey—especially honey high in glucose—tends to crystallize as it dries. Bees need water to dilute the crystals back into liquid before they can eat it. The same occurs if a beekeeper feeds crystalline sugar to bees as a winter supplement: the bees need to dissolve the crystals before they can eat the sugar.

Urban beekeepers face a problem when their bees select the neighbors’ swimming pools, bird baths, or hummingbird feeders as a water source. Although this occasionally happens, the bees’ need for additional water is less during nectar flows because the nectar contains a high percentage of water. Urban beekeepers can provide a source of water if they wish. 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. Chlorinated pools were scarce during the last 80 million years, so bees didn’t evolve to recognize the odor.

Another problem with water collection occurs in agricultural areas where plants are treated with systemic insecticides. Bees collecting water from guttation drops—drops of water that naturally seep from the tips of stems and leaves—can be poisoned. Worse, sublethal doses of pesticide can be carried back to the hive and fed to the developing larvae by way of the nurses. Researchers are currently trying to determine the type and frequency of damage this may cause to honey bee colonies.

Rusty

Comments

danny owens
Reply

I have been “watering” bees for many months now. Indeed, they do not like clean water. I’ve watched the individuals stay down on the water for as long as 25 seconds. Why so long? Is there any way I could list this water source and connect with the bee keeper. Might it be close? I am on the west side of Fort Worth near the corner of El Campo and Clover Lane. Thank you for your site and your information…
regards

Olusola
Reply

Hello, Olusola Ekundayo is my name, an M.Sc student of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries Management, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. As part of my research work, I would like know the daily water requirements of earthworm, terrestrial snail, bees and maggots. I would really appreciate any assistance rendered. Thank you in anticipation of your quick response.

Best regards.

Rusty
Reply

Olusola,

I’m sure that information is available, but I don’t have it here. Honey bees use greater amounts of water per bee than the solitary natives because honey bees use it for evaporative cooling in the hive as well as for drinking. But as for exact quantities, I do not know.

E
Reply

I have been noticing bees drinking at both of my bird baths that I replenish daily. I allow algae to grow on the baths to make them more natural….the bees love to drink from the edge. I am on the East Coast, USA.

Brad wiebe
Reply

I’d like to hear more.

Beemer
Reply

Sweet mint flowers attract many varieties of bees
My interest is in the honey bees
It is easy to make honey bee pets
A drop of honey on a fine dry straw swiped on a bee
While it is collecting nectar and pollen
One bee after another, some are startled,
Some are drawn instantly and start feeding. This is a good feeling.
When you see the tongue funneling in the honey
Place the bee at the honey source,
A foam cup with one teaspoon of honey to start with
Watch the bee fill the tank
When she takes off she will spiral out over the source for positioning
Now you know that you are going to be feeding bees for a while
Twenty to thirty bees will be back at your feeder and clean up the cup.
In no time the cup will be dry
Repeat the feeding once or twice a day, Place the cup out at night
Bees are early birds.
To observe bees you can be as close as holding the cup yourself
They know you now as their king.
Happy and content they buzz around you
Just do not make any sudden moves, guests will not sting.
I feed bees on the tip of my finger. Feel a slight tickle by the tongue
Make a feeder for your pets with a glass jar with sugar and water

Beemer
Reply

Love what you have written!

Beemer
Reply

Bees come to great me everywhere even when I am not keeping bees
They bump and fly around me in my backyard, front yard, and garage
And when I am picking sweet peas
Even at the parking lot of the neighborhood grocery store
Do they know or did they know I was beekeeping before
*******************
Is it that I ate their honey, chewed on their honey combs?
The candles or lip balm I made?
Must be my bright color cotton shirts, yellow, sky blue, light green.
Or Gucci by Gucci, DKNY, Brut Classic Scent, Edge Ultimate Achiever?
Are they coming to judge me?
Do they know and see me as their friend?
Can they see me?
********************
I confess: As a surveyor I once observed the flight paths
Of honey bees as they took off from my feeder
We were already close friends, so they thought, and they trusted me.
I walked and walked and setup feeders at various locations.
Observed flight paths from all locations, and made calculations.
Days and weeks passed by. Seasons changed
By ship , by train , by plane!!!
I finally arrived at the hive
By permission from the land owner,
I became the beekeeper.
Do you think bees still remember?

Ann
Reply

Thanks for the information on water. I observed about a dozen honey bees at a time busily flying back and forth from a damp rock in our stream for several weeks this summer. Never noticed this before but since they were arriving and departing in a constant stream in the same direction, I figured they must be collecting water for their hive. I was wondering if there is any way to know how close the hive might be to the chosen water source? I’ll add that the rock was a bit mossy and green, so that fits what you describe exactly. I was just thrilled to see these bees thriving and well and hope they continue to collect water from this rock.

Rusty
Reply

Ann,

It really depends on how much water is available. They will generally pick a source close to the hive, but if there isn’t one, they could go for miles.

rachael
Reply

Really interesting post! My research is actually on whether or not honey bees might use dirty water as a diet supplement–pollen is not always available and mineral content in pollen varies (a lot)!

Phil Lennox
Reply

Phil : Dec 18, 2015 Melton South, Victoria Australia

Summer is hotting up ( 31C ) and I noticed that the local bird life, and they’re a pretty clean bunch, now have a rather aggressive competition with a local hive in my birdbath. The bees have been rather forceful protecting their water source. The water is topped up every 2-3 days so it stays fairly fresh, and the bees love it. It is treated water with a slight hint of chlorine.

Rusty
Reply

Phil,

That’s interesting. I’ve heard that the smell of chlorine will attract bees to a water source.

patrick
Reply

I live in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. We have had a birdbath in the backyard for many years and never a bee. This year we almost had a hive set up in a compost bin before they moved on. We’ve got an absolute bee freeway now revolving around the birdbath as a central point. It’s funny that no bird goes near it anymore. We had a cool spell last week, and the bees disappeared. But, the past few days are up around the 30C mark and higher and they’ve come back. It had actually evaporated this morning and still they were in looking for water. It is much fun to look after them, and they are so well behaved.

How far away would the hive be?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Patrick,

If they are honey bees, they could be coming from quite a ways, especially if all the surrounding regions are equally hot and dry. It could be up to 3 km, although it is probably closer. If they are other types of bees, species of Australian natives, they would be living much closer, probably within 100 meters or so.

Andrea
Reply

Is there any problem with keeping bees next to a plant that treats oily water from ship bilges? There is a creek with a number stagnant pools of water on the other side of the area in question.

Rusty
Reply

Andrea,

Probably not a problem. Honey bees are pretty smart and will generally avoid things that may harm them.

Wendy
Reply

We have a very large honeybee hive in the barn on the property where I rent. I love the bees and am glad they have not died off. My question is; I have a water garden on my deck with some water lilies and some kind of plant that looks like bamboo. This year it has become a honey bee bar. They climb the large plant and seem to be in the water forever. At first there were only a couple but now more and more bees come everyday. Is this normal? Will they take over my deck? I’m not afraid of them but I will have guest that could be put off. Any suggestions? Thanks. I am a firm believer in trying to keep this planet and all her creatures safe, so I don’t want to upset the ecosystem but it has me a little unnerved. Normally they drink from my 2 bird baths in my grove, can’t figure what attracted them to the deck this year?

Rusty
Reply

Wendy,

Different year, different bees. Somehow this year they found your water garden and decided they like it. Those bees will tell others about it and you will probably get more and more bees, especially as the weather warms. Honey bees away from their hive are gentle and non-threatening. They won’t sting unless you accidentally grab one, sit on it, or step on it. If you want them to go away, you will have to remove the water.

Ian
Reply

I’ve been told bees that return with water tell other bees where it’s at. The bees that don’t return (unsafe water like a swimming pools where they drown) don’t return. The effect being feedback that reinforces safe water sources. This is why a few bees turns into many bees once they’ve found something that works. We had a constant flow of bees (20+ at all times) on our solar powered fountain that runs all day while they forage. Our two hives seems to have found where water is and boy was it hit today.

Doug (in Davis, CA)
Reply

Hi Rusty –

It has been pretty warm this summer (continuing CA drought) and I’ve been maintaining a shallow terra cotta container filled with stones and an old piece of towel along one edge as a water source for our two hives; it’s located in a semi-shaded area about 5 yards from the hives. I keep it filled with rainwater from the roof collected in barrels. And… it’s culturing a nice growth of algae. However, the girls seldom pay it much attention to it, preferring instead water from our pool which we keep covered during the day to minimize evaporation; I have no idea how many of the cadavers collected in the pool were are our girls or from somewhere else in the neighborhood.

I understand they’re attracted to the pool chlorine, but I’m not about to use it in the terra cotta water dish because it would kill the algae. Do you think a drop of star anise oil would perhaps redirect them?

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

You can try, but it is very hard to get them to change water sources once they find one they like.

Patrick
Reply

Here in the desert, I’ve observed that honey bees DO store water in pollen cells. Pollen cells are never completely filled, and this excess space make for excellent water storage in the -+115 degree heat of the American southwest.

Rusty
Reply

Patrick,

I would think water would encourage mold growth or decomposition. Usually bees cover the pollen with a layer of nectar from the honey stomach of the bees. This nectar contains glucose oxidase, which lowers the pH and produces hydrogen peroxide, an antibacterial agent.

JANIS HEUVEL
Reply

I have lived at my current home 7 years now. We live in a semi-arid area of central Washington. This is the first year I have seen bees at my bird bath.

I have enjoyed them very much. I go out to the bird bath and give them fresh cool water daily. I usually spray the bird bath with a light mist of water to get them out of it and to keep from drowning them. I then add the water. All the while they are flying around me and sometimes land on my hand. Over the summer I have scooped multiple bees out of the bird bath while I fill it if they fall in and don’t seem able to fly out. I just gently scoop them up with my hand and lay them on the edge of the bird bath, they don’t seem troubled by it at all. As I see them all leave in the same direction I assume they are from the same hive. Perhaps a new hive in the residential area I live in or someone keeping bees. In either case I have enjoyed communing with the bees.

Art
Reply

Hi Rusty,
Could you provide scientific citations for the 3 uses of water for honeybees that you describe above?
Thanks
Art

Rusty
Reply

Art,

I made a note and will do it when I have time. Meanwhile, colony uses of water are described in any decent beekeeping book such as The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (41st edition p. 818) or The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015 edition pp. 251-252).

Art
Reply

Thanks for these, Rusty. I also found this one:

“Water homeostasis in bees, with the emphasis on sociality” S. W. Nicolson
Journal of Experimental Biology 2009 212: 429-434; doi: 10.1242/jeb.022343.

Rachael
Reply

Tom Seeley also describes the uses of water in his book, The Wisdom of the Hive. Also, I recently did a study that shows that honey bees likely go to certain water sources as a mineral supplement–that paper is currently in press. You will be able to find it on my website once it’s published (hopefully soon)!

Patrick Griffiths
Reply

I’m no bee expert, and no vegetable garden expert either. But here in southern temperate Australia, I’ve put in a drip filter system into my vegie garden. It was amazing how quickly the bees learned that there are droplets of water coming out of the piping. they even come around looking for it when the water is not flowing. So, they have some form of memory – and a quick one at that. Good onya bees.

Rusty
Reply

Patrick,

Not only do they remember where to go, but they can tell their nest mates where the water source is, just as they do with nectar. I often recommend drip irrigation as a great water source, for either honey bees or native bees.

Tony
Reply

Interesting statement that bees prefer ‘dirty’ water. This morning I was checking out my hive during a moderate rain shower. The bees were hanging around close to the hive entrance collecting from rain droplets that had run down the front of the hive. This water would have been very clean, having never reached the ground. Maybe my girls are just fussy.

Rusty
Reply

Tony,

More likely the “moderate rain shower” kept them home so they used what was convenient.

Denise
Reply

Has anyone else noted that bees seem to prefer running or moving water, from a stream or running fountain…as opposed to stagnant water. At least in my rural area they do. A winery I worked out was just swarmed with bees at the running fountains…they didn’t touch the nearby stagnant water sources.

Lisa
Reply

I have a solar powered fountain that the birds usually drink from and bathe in. recently the bees have taken over and the birds will not go near it. How do I get rid of the bees? I don’t see any hive anywhere around my home. I live in Southern California. the birds that come to the fountain are different types of finches.

I enjoy watching the birds drink and bathe, not fond of the bees taking over. Please help.

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

How you get rid of them depends on what kind of bees they are. Or they could be wasps. Do you have any photos?

Brian
Reply

My neighbors got a bee hive about a year ago. About 2 weeks ago I noticed that bees started showing up to drink at a large potted bromeliad that has lived in my yard for years. Bromeliad leaves form pockets that collect water. There are about a dozen separate plants in the pot and all have pockets full of water but the bees only go to one specific plant. Coincidently, the bromeliad cluster began to put out one flower about 2 weeks ago. This is the plant they are attracted to. The bees completely ignore the flower; I have never seen a bee on the flower. Is there any explanation for their exclusive preference for this plant?

Rusty
Reply

Brian,

The only thing I can think of is they may have been attracted to the flower because of the way it looked or smelled, but once they checked it out, they didn’t care for it. But, coincidentally they found the water source close to it. They may be using the flower as a visual marker to guide them to the water.

William
Reply

I have a solar powered fountain that the birds usually drink from and bathe in. I moved the fountain away from the swimming pool about 20 feet, but the bees still go to the same spot near my pool and congregate on the edge of the swimming pool. How do I get the bees to go to the fountain, instead of my pool? Thank you

Rusty
Reply

William,

Try putting pool water in the fountain. I’ve read they are attracted to the scent of chlorine. But once they have developed patterns, like drinking from the pool, it’s tough to get them to change.

William
Reply

PS, they are honey bees…….

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