Creating the Best Water Sources for Bees
How to Make a Safe Bee Watering Station
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Like all animals, honey bees need a dependable source of water year round. The best water sources for bees are ones that won’t go dry in the summer, won’t drown the bees, and won’t be shared with livestock or pets. Although honey bees adore a nice salt water pool, it’s a good idea to establish your water source before your bees begin chasing away the sunbathers.
Honey bees drink water like other animals, but they also use it for other purposes. In winter especially, honey bees use water to dissolve crystallized honey and thin honey that has become too thick and viscous. In summer, they spread droplets of water along the edges of brood comb, and then fan the comb with their wings. The rapid fanning sets up air currents that evaporate the water and cools the nest to the right temperature for raising baby bees.
Honey Bees Collect Four Things
In a healthy honey bee colony, foragers collect four different things from the environment. Depending on what the colony needs at a particular time, the bees may collect nectar, pollen, propolis, or water. Both pollen and propolis are carried in pollen baskets on the bees’ hind legs, whereas water and nectar are carried internally in the crop.
In most cases, a bee will collect the same thing all day, one trip after another. So once a water-carrying bee transfers her load of water to a house bee, she goes back to the same source and fills her crop again. However, sometimes a forager can’t find a house bee willing to accept her load of water. If that happens, she knows the colony now has all the water it needs, so she begins to forage for something else instead.
Honey bees often choose water that says “Yuck!” to the rest of us. They may choose stagnant ditch water, slimy flower pots, muddy mole holes, or a pile of wet leaves. Unfortunately for rural and backyard beekeepers, they are also attracted to the smell of salt and chlorine, which are frequently added to swimming pools. While it seems logical to supply sparkling clean water for your bees, they will probably ignore it.
The Best Water Sources for Bees Have a Smell
When deciding on the best water sources for bees, it helps to think like a bee. Although every bee has five eyes, bee eyes are attuned to detecting motion and changes in light levels, not the detail we are accustomed to seeing. In addition, bees travel high and fast, so they may easily overlook potential water sources.
Biologists believe that bees probably find most of their water by scent rather than sight, so a water source with a smell will be more attractive. Water that smells like wet earth, moss, aquatic plants, worms, decomposition, or even chlorine, has a better chance of attracting a bee than sparkling water straight from the tap.
Smelly or slimy water sources have the advantage of containing a wide range of nutrients as well. Although a bee gets most of her nutrients from nectar and pollen, some water sources are rich in vitamins and micronutrients that can boost honey bee nutrition.
Make Your Bee Watering Station Safe
The other thing bees like is a safe place to stand. Water in a steep-sided container or water that flows quickly is dangerous to a bee because they can easily drown. To solve this problem, beekeepers have devised all kinds of bee watering stations. A saucer filled with marbles or stones makes an excellent DIY watering station for bees. Equally good is a bucket of water with plenty of “bee rafts.” These can be corks, sticks, sponges, or packing peanuts — anything that floats. If you are a gardener, you may have a hose with a slow leak or a drippy irrigation head that can be moved to a convenient location and allowed to seep into the ground. Others use hummingbird feeders filled with water or small ponds with lily pads.
Please Bees: Use This, Not That
Sometimes, though, honey bees are stubborn and no matter how many creative water features you design, they prefer your neighbor’s place. Besides the pool, your bees may take a shine to your neighbor’s pet bowl, horse trough, potted plant, birdbath, or even worse, the pinned up laundry.
Unfortunately, bees are creatures of habit and once they find a reliable source they will return again and again. Since getting your bees to change their source is nearly impossible, it is best to establish a source for them before they find one by themselves.
Close, But Not Too Close
Honey bees can travel long distances to find the resources they need. Normally, a colony forages within a couple miles of home. However, in times of stress when resources are in short supply, a bee may travel five miles to get what she needs. Of course, this is not ideal because the trip may require more resources than she collects. In short, the best water sources for bees will be reasonably close to the hive.
However, the bees’ system of communicating the location of resources — the dance language — works best for things that are not too close to the hive. For things just a few feet away, a bee can say the source is close, but she has trouble explaining exactly where it is. If the thing is a bit further away, she can give a direction. So for best results, have the bee waterer a short flight from home, perhaps 100 feet, not right under the hive.
Attracting Bees to Your Watering Station
When first establishing a water source, it can help to spike it with chlorine. A teaspoon of chlorine bleach in a bucket of water may be enough to get the bees’ attention. Other beekeepers add a handful of ground oyster shells to a pie pan of water, which gives the water a faintly salty ocean smell the bees find attractive. Alternatively, you can use a weak sugar solution in a bee waterer. Once the bees find it, they will empty it quickly and come back for more.
When luring the bees with chlorine, salt, or sugar, you can stop adding the attractant as soon as the bees become accustomed to the source. After a few days, they will “forget” what was there and simply think of it as water. The most important thing is to establish a pattern early, as soon as your bees arrive before they develop bad habits.
The best water sources for bees are often very creative. Do you have one you especially like?
Rusty is a master beekeeper in Washington State. She has been fascinated by honey bees since childhood and, in recent years, has become enthralled with the native bees that share pollination duty with honey bees. She has an undergraduate degree in agronomic crops and a master’s degree in environmental studies with an emphasis on pollination ecology. Rusty owns a website, HoneyBeeSuite.com, and is the director of a small non-profit, the Native Bee Conservancy of Washington State. Through the non-profit, she helps organizations with conservation projects by taking species inventories and planning pollinator habitat. Besides writing for the website, Rusty has published in Bee Culture and Bee World magazines, and has regular columns in Bee Craft (UK) and the American Bee Journal. She frequently speaks to groups about bee conservation, and has worked as an expert witness in bee sting litigation. In her spare time, Rusty enjoys macro photography, gardening, canning, baking, and quilting.
14 thoughts on “Creating the Best Water Sources for Bees”
you shouldn’t add sugar (or honey) to a bees drinking water. The bees will come for the sugar and will not visit flowers. They will also take this sugar back to the hive diluting the honey. Adding honey is also bad because it can carry bacteria which could infect the whole hive.
Would our yard moss put in a shallow dish with water work? Smell plus a place to land. Or an old pet waterer with rocks in the bowl portion, the ones with the upside down 2 liter bottle?
Hi Marissa – Both solutions would work!
I was hoping to add a hive to our backyard as this is something I have always been interested in. As I have read more about the water source, I am more and more concerned about our backyard saltwater pool and being able to establish a water source other than the pool. Is it generally a bad idea to have a hive if you have a pool that could easily serve as the source?
Hi Patrick, it’s true bees are drawn to pools, but it’s not a deal breaker that you have one. I would make sure to establish watering sources close their hives and if you do find they gravitate to your pool, here is some advice from our resident master beekeeper: https://backyardbeekeeping.iamcountryside.com/ask-the-expert/how-do-i-keep-bees-away-from-my-pool/
My neighbour has installed 2 beehives and now my birdbath has bees at it ALL the time.Will these bees interfere with the usual visitors,like birds , dragonflies, native bees?
Hi Lucille, thanks for stopping by Backyard Beekeeping. Bees are stubborn in that when they find a watering source they aren’t easily swayed to leave for another. I would talk to your neighbor and make sure she has a similar setup in her yard so the bees at least have access to water near the hives. She might also consider changing their flight path so they are naturally flying to a watering source that isn’t your bird bath. Be patient, like I said, bees aren’t quick to leave what they know.
It would be nice if you read the comments and questions in here…
Hi Hannah – Thank you for the feedback. While we try to reply to as many comments as possible, we do ask our community members to help one another out. Have a great day! ~Steph
My Neighbour has about 130 beehives 🙁 and I have a water problem in my garden, I have to be careful of my animals basically I cannot use part of my garden and my dogs get stung Is there anything I can put in the water or around it to Deter them
Hi, I am new to beekeeping and will set up a hive as a hobby and to help our environment. We have a 2 acre block with light forest/bush at both ends. We also have a bore water irrigation system that is slightly acidic – around 5 on the ph scale, however the garden loves it. My question is – if I set up a small feed tube to a water station which will keep a constant supply of water to a bee water feeder, will the bees be ok on my bore water? Or will it be detrimental to their health?
Thanks in anticipation.
just started with my first hive in my yard… did a mite test with powdered sugar, need to treat. so my question is what are your thoughts on using mineral spirit fogging, rather than oxillace acid
I have a bird bath that my bees really like…I let the water get a little dirty as I thought that was better than refilling it and scrubbing it every day. But I worry that I am just creating the perfect environment for mosquitoes. What’s best?
What height should the water source be? Can the water source like a bird bath on the ground be ok? I have a built in pool and I’d prefer they don’t come near it like last year; however, my bees died last year so I’m getting new ones in April and want to make sure there is a water source before I open my pool.