Bee waterer…but away she flies to drink. When we first began beekeeping we conscientiously provided a water source near to the hive(s) as all the books recommended. Ours took the form of a chicken waterer with its tray filled with pebbles so the aquarian foragers would not drown. The bees ignored it in favor of more distant sources such as the birdbath, the moat around the hummingbird feeder, and puddles unknown. This kind of apian ingratitude for conveniently located water seems a common occurrence made more insulting by the often filthy condition of the water they prefer. Luckily none of the usual filth gets into the honey or makes the bees sick. We have since left the girls to their own devices and thought no more of it until a question from blogger Solarbeez reawoke our curiosity about this behavior. After some googling and noodling1 we formed some tentative impressions about a bee’s notion of the perfect watering hole and began collecting them into this blog post, which we soon lost and forgot and periodically rediscovered among the drafts only to forget again after some minor editing. Now, eight years later, we are finally sharing these long-delayed thoughts with our readers.

The source should be detectable by the bees. Clean water has no smell; dirty water does. And a large source like a pond or neighbor’s swimming pool, due to its effect on local humidity, is easier to find than a small one like our chicken waterer. Then consider that our discoverer may wish to recruit other foragers to help carry water. Her waggle dance provides range and heading but it can only direct the others to the general vicinity, while a round dance for nearby sources2 provides no directional information whatsoever. In either case the recruited foragers must rely on their own senses to discover what they seek. That is why when recruiting foragers for nectar the discoverer gives the others a taste of what awaits at the destination. That allows them to home in on their target after following her directions. But in the case of odorless water this would be no help. Imagine trying to follow a compass heading for some specified distance to locate a small invisible object.

The source should be safely accessible. The bee must be able to land somewhere or on something to reach the water without falling in. Pebbles poking above the water as in our chicken waterer or floating bits of wood in a bucket can work but consider things from a bee-sized perspective. For the wood, how high above the waterline is the top? Too high and a bee risks falling in; too low and a wind-raised ripple may knock her in. The bees seem to prefer shallow slopes that let them land near the still water’s edge and then walk up to it to drink. That happens to be the shape of many a birdbath.

The source should be reliable. The bees prefer to go where they can count on water being present. Our intentions were good but it was much easier to tell when the bird bath needed refilling than when the chicken waterer did. We may have been less than perfectly dependable but the whole point of a large waterer is to not require frequent refilling. And the bees had already shown signs of ignoring it.

The source should be near the hive. This is clearly a guideline rather than a rule else there would not be so many agitated beekeepers. Considering that foraging for water is more dangerous than for nectar, it seems that the bees would especially prefer a source near home. Yet this obviously does not override other concerns. In fact we wonder if a more distant source, just beyond round dance range, would not work better?

BeesWater 007If we were to again provide a water source specifically intended for the bees we would make sure the access was from a shallow slope. And we would flavor or scent the water somehow. But we will likely leave it to others to verify our guesses since we already keep a birdbath filled.

1If googles were a food to accompany noodles what would they be?
2References vary in specifying the distance that is a lower bound for waggle dancing or upper bound for round dancing. No doubt because the bees themselves do not agree. Nor do they reckon distance as we do. Nevertheless under twenty yards seems to certainly call for round rather waggle.