Favorite watering holes

Florence, a beekeeper and blogger in eastern Ontario, sent some photos with a question: Why do her bees return to the same watering holes day after day, even when it is raining and closer-to-home sources abound?

My first thought was that the bees want their usual dirty water, the water with a nice green odor and decaying bits of algae and plant slime. But Florence pointed out that she cleans her birdbaths daily due to the questionable sanitation habits of her feathered friends. Hmm. I don’t know the answer to this, except I believe that once the bees find a reliable source of drinking water, they would rather return to it than seek out a new one. There is something comforting about a known location . . . but there I go anthropomorphizing again.

I recently purchased a couple of potted Stachys byzantina plants for the amusement of my wool carder bees (or for my amusement, whatever). But day after day as the wool carders frolic in the lemon balm six feet away, the Stachys is covered with honey bees that appear to be drinking from the leaves. I water the pollinator garden in the morning, and the downy leaves of the Stachys capture a fair bit of moisture that the honey bees seem to love; you can see their tongues go right down between the fibers.

Other than that, my honey bees seem to like the mucky water that leaks from the bottom of my raised garden beds, the slimy water that seeps out of the hill, and the slick surface of a rotting wooden spool—one of those huge things that once held metal cables—that now rests, forever damp, beneath the branches of a western hemlock.

Honey bees drink water, true, but they also use water for evaporative cooling of the hive. For example, they will spread water in a thin film on the edges of brood cells and then fan their wings to evaporate the water and bring down the internal temperature of the hive.

If cooling is the primary use of the water they collect, then any nutrients it may contain are superfluous to the intended purpose. In fact, you would think that dirty water would leave a residue—like a hard water deposit—on the comb. And since I seldom see other bee species drinking water, it makes me think that evaporative cooling is the primary purpose of honey-bee collected water. All of which muddies the question of why they seem to like it smelly, familiar, and green.

Maybe Florence’s bees are using the bird bath water for cooling and the lily pond water for drinking. That seems way too organized, but who knows? Ultimately, Florence may be right. She says they are really just social drinkers.


Water or a spinach smoothie? © Florence .
Bees drinking during a rain shower. Is that plain water or a spinach smoothie? © Florence Hill.
Social drinkers. © Florence .
Just after the rain, social drinkers lap up a certain crystal clear liquid. © Florence Hill.
Honey bee drinking from a Stachys leaf. © Rusty Burlew.
Honey bee sipping from a Stachys leaf. © Rusty Burlew.

Lucky on guard

Lucky belongs to James, a new beekeeper in Nisswa, Minnesota. Lucky reminds me so much of the kitty belonging to Vivian and Craig Scott of Delaware that I just had to post his photo—same passion, same intensity, same zeal for the job. How does one get one of these jobs, I wonder? What are the qualifications? I think I need a new line of work.

Lucky hard at work. Photo by James.

Can I use mothballs in my hives?

No. Mothballs, whether made out of naphthalene or para-dichlorobenzene, are insecticides and insect repellents that have no place in a hive containing live bees. Several people have asked if putting the crystals in a bee-proof space—such as a net bag or wire cage—would keep the bees safe from contact. Again the answer is no because it is the inhaled gas that is poisonous.

Both of these chemicals, commonly used to treat clothes moths, work by subliming in a closed environment. Sublimation simply means the material goes straight from the solid state to the gaseous state. The gas, in an enclosed space, builds up to toxic levels that will kill moths and other insects. At lower concentrations, it acts to repel rather than kill the organisms, due to the unpleasant odor.

Since you neither want to kill nor repel your honey bees, you do not want these products in any hive that currently contains bees. Crystals of para-dichlorobenzene are often used in stored bee boxes to keep wax combs free of moths during the winter months, which is fine, but the equipment must be thoroughly aired before being used with live bees. The advantage of para-dichlorobenzene over naphthalene is that the odor will dissipate quickly. On the other hand, equipment treated with naphthalene mothballs may smell nasty for months (or years) to come.

Also, honey meant for human consumption must never be exposed to these products. Not only will it smell bad, but deleterious health effects are known or suspected for each. Both are listed as known carcinogens by the State of California, and para-dichlorobenzene is a neurotoxin. Naphthalene-containing products have been banned by the EU since 2008.

So use para-dichlorobenzene (such as Para-Moth) only for storage of boxes and frames.The best way to control wax moths in active hives is to keep colonies strong and healthy, and to provide no more space than the colony can effectively patrol. Colonies that have other problems, such as beetle infestations or Varroa mites, are more likely to fall victim to a wax moth infestation. Colonies with too many boxes for the size of the colony also easily become victims.


Bees that attack honey bees

Earlier this week, Lisa from Oregon wrote to say that some really aggressive black and yellow bees were injuring the honey bees that came to her yard. She likes the honey bees and wanted to know what would attack them.

At first I thought they were probably wasps or hornets of some sort, but then I had another idea: wool carder bees. It was the right modus operandi, the right physical description, and the right time of year. I told her my thoughts and said it would help to have a photo. Truthfully, I never expected to hear from her again, but in no time she sent a pic: a European wool carder, indeed. Read more

Her bees are so refined

Earlier this week, beekeeper Debbe Krape of Delaware was called upon to make an unusual bee rescue. The colony, shown below, was building its new home at the Sunoco Refinery in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. On Monday, Debbe sent me a short message along with the photos:

We were able to cut the leaves of wax off and bring them home. Holding the leaves in frames with rubber bands. Lots of brood. Saw the queen and got her, too. All going in a hive now.

The next day, she followed up with an account of the entire event: Read more