Water in the beehive (2022)

There’s a question that often appears on beekeeping knowledge exams:

Name the four things that bees bring back into the hive and name what they are used for:

  1. ______________________________________ is used for ___________________________.
  2. ______________________________________ is used for ___________________________.
  3. ______________________________________ is used for ___________________________.
  4. ______________________________________ is used for ___________________________.

Want to see the answers? Look below.

The one answer that often eludes test takers is, water. Like all living things, bees need water to survive. In addition to staying hydrated, they also use water to dilute honey to make brood food.

One of the most intriguing uses bees have for water is managing the temperatures inside a hive on a hot day. They bring water in and spread a thin layer over the surfaces of the comb and then use their wings to move air in order to evaporate it, which lowers the air temperature. At least some of the hum from a hive on a summer day is from thousands of pairs of wings operating their in-hive swamp cooler.

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 each day during peak demand.

Bees find water at many sources. You will often see bees clustered around small seeps and leaks from pipes or hoses. And somewhat disgustingly, they seem to relish pretty sketchy sources of water which you wouldn’t drink. In the early spring, they 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. But there is a difference 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 for 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 a longer time finding a willing receiver, she will not recruit other bees for the task. Recruitment includes giving the new-hire a small sample of the water, to help train her to recognize the water source by smell or taste.

Water is not stored in the combs. It appears to be “stored” temporarily in the crops of nurse bees within the hive.

Peak demand for water occurs during two conditions: when 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.

And that can lead to problems with humans, because bees sometimes find swimming pools conveniently located near their hives. Unfortunately, the best days for lounging around a pool are often when demand may be the highest for water to cool the hive, increasing the bee traffic. In addition, pool water contains salts that may make the water extra-attractive to the bees.

It’s easy to understand the panic of nearly-naked humans who find themselves close to the flight path of bees determined to supply their “air conditioning” system. Experienced beekeepers might know from the pitch of the flight noise that the bee was simply going about her business with no hostile intent. But non-beekeepers often become alarmed and wind up provoking stings if they flail around at 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 on a contaminated water source.

Can you create a new water source for your bees?

Yes, but you can’t just 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.

The good bee water source must be always available, and easily accessible to the bees. Bees often drown when taking water, so there should be lots of shallow approaches to the edge of the water. These can be rocks or floating objects that protrude above the surface to allow the bees to walk safely down to the edge.

Quiet, unmoving water will be a haven for mosquito larvae, and you may prefer not to use any mosquito-killing chemicals on the bees’ water supply. Adding a small circulating pump will keep the water in gentle motion which will help to reduce its attractiveness to mosquitoes. But a pump will require some form of power to run.

If you have a nearby water source, like a hose bibb to top up the water in the bees’ pool, that would be an added convenience. If you live in a cold climate, you will need to be able to remove the water and the pump before winter causes it to freeze and crack.

Water in the beehive (1) Photo credit: Beth Girdler, Beth Girdler Beekeeping Copyright 2020, Used with permission
Bees drinking at bowl filled with wetland mosses and sedges

The best time to get this 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, they may never go looking any further. As long as you keep it filled, they will find what they need.

What if your neighbors start complaining about your bees at their pool?

You could disclaim that it is your bees, after all who knows where they came from? And it could be other types of native bees, or wasps or yellow jackets over which you have no control. But for the sake of good relations, take your neighbors’ complaints seriously, if only because keeping honey bees in a neighborhood is almost always subject to zoning laws which may ban bees altogether if they create too many problems. And if you blow off the complaints, your neighbors may turn to spraying chemicals which won’t be good for your bees.

So, make a date and go visit the pool; see which kinds of bees are creating problems. Explain why honey bees are drinking (the swamp cooler explanation amazes people), explain about how foragers are concentrating on their task and not looking for trouble. Tell your neighbors about your plan to offer your bees another source of water. And warn them that it might take a few weeks to reorient your bees to their new water hole, because the water carriers are already oriented to the swimming pool.

Set up a new water source immediately, though it may not instantly solve the problem. It’s critical that it never runs out of water while you are trying to tempt them 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 you will initially have the problem of the oriented water carriers’ fidelity 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.

Answer the beekeeping question above:

  1. Nectar is used to make honey.
  2. Pollen is used to make brood food.
  3. Plant resins are used to make propolis.
  4. Water is used for hydration, diluting honey and cooling the hive.

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