There’s a question that often appears on beekeeping knowledge exams asking test-takers to identify the four things that bees bring back into the hive, and what those items are used for. These items are: nectar to make honey; pollen to make brood food; plant resins to make propolis; and water for hydration, diluting honey, and cooling the hive. While the uses for nectar and pollen seem obvious, let’s examine the reasons bees need water, how water supports the whole hive, and how to provide safe water sources for your bees.
Like all living things, bees need water to survive. Bees drink water and use it to feed young bees, but they also use water in the hive for temperature regulation and in the honey-making process.
Some of the hum you hear inside the hive on a hot summer day is your bees operating their in-hive air conditioner: Worker bees are tasked with finding water sources, collecting water, and bringing it back to the hive. The gathered water is spread in a thin layer over the surface of the comb where the bees fan the water with their wings to evaporate it, creating an in-hive cooling system.
Bees also use water to thin and de-crystalize honey, making it easier to consume—which is especially important during the winter, when honey stores help bees survive.
There are some bees whose entire foraging life may be devoted to being water carriers, making 50 to 100 trips per day. A hive may need as much as a quart of water each day during peak demand.
Bees find water from many sources. You will often see bees clustered around small seeps and leaks from pipes or hoses. In the early spring, bees will use small pools of snow melt, even when the water is perilously near freezing.
The uptake and transportation methods of nectar-collecting bees and water-carrier bees are similar, with a few differences when the foragers return to the hive.
Nectar availability is controlled by the time of day, weather, and presence of nectar-producing plant species. If nectar is available, bees will haul it into the hive, so the nectar-foraging behavior of the bees is driven by the supply. Rich sources of nectar are “advertised” by the foraging bees to others in the hive using waggle dances that describe the potential of the resource and how to find it. This sends additional bees out of the hive to capture the bounty and bring it back for both immediate consumption and, in much larger amounts, for long-term storage. This is what allows bees to be such efficient honey hoarders.
Water, on the other hand, is foraged only on demand. It appears that when the sugar concentration in the water-carrier bees’ honey crops gets elevated, they leave the hive to find water nearby. When they return to the hive, specialized receiver bees will take the water from them.
The speed with which water carrier bees find a water receiver bee to accept the load controls whether additional water carrier bees are recruited. When the carrier bee must spend longer finding a willing receiver, she will not recruit other water foragers. If she finds that there are bees aplenty to receive foraged water, it’s time for recruitment, which includes giving the new hire a small sample of the water to train her to recognize the water source by smell or taste.
Water is not stored in the combs, but appears to be “stored” temporarily in the crops of nurse bees within the hive.
Peak demand for water occurs when the weather prevents bees from foraging for nectar (which is mostly water when it arrives at the hive) and on hot days when brood nest temperature regulation is critical. Foraging under these conditions can lead to problems with humans: bees sometimes find swimming pools conveniently located near their hives, and the best days for lounging around a pool are often when demand may be the highest for water to cool the hive, which increases bee traffic. In addition, pool water contains salts that may make the water extra-attractive to the bees.
Every year we hear reports of pool-bee problems, some of which have even required the removal of the bees to calm the neighbors’ fears. Most beekeepers don’t give much thought to their bees’ sources of water. But unless you live in a rural area, it’s smart to do so before any problem arises. Once the bees have found a good source of water, such as the pool next door, it will be hard to dissuade them from using it. If you offer a good alternative source of water for your bees, you can forestall problems. In addition, it might prevent them from foraging from a contaminated water source.
While you can create new water sources for bees, you can’t simply put out a bucket of nice clean water and consider it done. Bees don’t seem to like perfectly potable water, preferring slightly “riper” water. Something like a permanently dripping hose near a rock might be a solution, but perhaps not good water conservation. Follow these quick tips for providing water to your bees:
If you find that your bees are foraging from an unsafe water source, you may need to try to lure your bees to a new source. The best time to get your water source set up is in the early spring when the bees are first going out of the hive again. If they find your bee drinking pool and come to rely on it, and if you keep it filled, they will have what they need and may never go looking any further.
Neighbors may complain about bees collecting from their pool or yard, so to forestall any beekeeper-neighbor conflicts, offer to visit the pool and confirm whether honey bees are, in fact, foraging from the pool—or determine if they are other types of native bees, wasps, or yellow jackets. Taking the time to follow up and educate your neighbors can help prevent them from spraying harmful chemicals, and can ease your neighborly relationship. Then, tell your neighbors how you plan to offer your bees a new water source—and explain that it may take weeks to reorient the bees to their new water hole. Though it may not instantly solve the problem, set up a new water source right away.
It’s critical that your new water source never runs out of water while you are trying to orient your bees away from another source, so keep it filled. If possible, use water from the pool for the initial supply in the new source so that it has familiar characteristics. Although the oriented water carriers’ fidelity will be to the known source, bees don’t travel long distances to find water. Water foraging behavior is controlled by demand, not supply. If your source is closer than the pool, chances are your bees will find it and begin using it.Water is necessary, not only for hydration and honey production, but also to keep bee hives at the right temperature through sweltering summer weather. If your bees find an unsuitable water source, you can use these methods to redirect them and—hopefully—lure them to a new, better option. For more beekeeping tips, explore our Beekeeper Guide.