Love that dirty water

The song “Dirty Water” was released by the Standells in 1966, but it could have been written by your local bee colony. It seems honey bees prefer water that most of us would consider unpalatable.

I live in a place where water is not in short supply. There is a creek nearby—more like a small river—and two streams, one of which originates from a spring not ten feet from the apiary. Lower down are wetlands—swampy areas that never dry out and are choked with skunk cabbage and water parsley. And did I mention it rains nine months out of twelve?

But the water the bees adore seeps from the side of a hill, runs across a path to the hives, and eventually drains into one of those swampy areas. It is more mucky than wet and is home to creatures that never travel in a straight line—squigglies that slither and writhe. The area is slippery with furry green stones that emit a moldy bread aroma, but the bees belly up as if it were the best bar in town.

Given a choice, bees pick the most fragrant, nutrient-rich water they can find. Puddles, ponds, brooks, irrigation systems, bird baths, hose bibbs, and pet dishes all attract bees—so do saltwater pools and even pools with chlorine. Plant secretions and guttation drops are also known to attract bees, as well as wet compost and recently turned soil. Last year I watched bees sipping from freshly poured concrete.

The why of it is complex, but many experts think that it is the scent of the source that helps them find water, whether it be the odor of mud, mold, bacteria, or even chlorine. When you read about bee vision, you realize that they can’t see water the way we do. They fly rapidly over the ground and things appear in a blur. They see certain colors, they see movement, but they probably don’t see water. But their sense of smell can guide them to it—or, more accurately, to the things that are in it.

While we prefer water without floaters or flavors, fortified water is likely a component of honey bee health. Such water adds nutrients and vitamins to the bee diet—something that may be especially important in times of dearth or in areas of monoculture. Salt water pools seem particularly attractive to bees—no surprise since most creatures need salt for good health.

In addition, bees prefer water with edges—water with safe places to stand where they won’t drown or get swept away. On cool days in the spring and fall, warm water has an advantage over cold water since a bee can quickly become chilled from a small drink. If you want to provide a water source for your bees, keep it shallow, provide stepping stones or rafts, and wait for the slime to appear. And don’t forget to put up a sign, “Ladies Drink for Free.”

Note: I have been told that 2 tablespoons of vinegar in 1 gallon of water will keep honey bees out of pet bowls and bird baths without discouraging pets or birds. I have not tried this so I don’t know if it works.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Soon after this photo was taken, the bees began drinking from the wet concrete.
Soon after this photo was taken, the bees began drinking from the wet concrete.

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Comments

Anita
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Love your website! My bees really like drinking water from potted plants with peat in the soil. They skip the bee water bucket and head straight for the plants every chance they get. I’ve seen them almost bury their entire head deep in the soil to get the water below, if the soil on top is getting dry. The girls really do love that dirty water for some reason.

Deborah
Reply

Thanks for posting this! I was feeling guilty because the water in my “bee dish” was getting a bit funky. The bees didn’t seem to mind, and now I know they may even prefer it that way!! :-)

Sarah
Reply

My bees like the algae-covered ditch in my front yard.

sabine
Reply

thank you! finally the answer I was looking for… I just repotted some venus fly traps in peat and sand and distilled water… then i noticed up to 5 or so bees hanging around and I wondered why… I don’t mind at all… I love bees and they are important so want to help them if I can… I will now create a little bowl just for them with some peat and sand and water. :)

Nan Roberts
Reply

My bees like to get into the drainage holes on the edges of my potted plants and get at the wet dirt. I have two pie tins filled with pebbles that I fill with water. One of them in the front of the house they like. It has somehow gotten filled with dirt, too. I was going to clean it out, but now I won’t. They also land on my garden beds, which are layered with lots of mucky things, like old chicken bedding, and pine sawdust.

Chris
Reply

Thank you so much for clearing up why the bees don’t go to the nice tub of water with rocks I put out just for them and nobody else. The yellowjackets use it all the time but not the bees. Just recently the bees have been clustering around the drain holes of some potted blueberry starts, and seem to be sucking the water out of the soil exposed in the drain holes. Before that they were embarrassingly hanging around an overturned half whiskey barrel that collects an inch water around the rim. But no they were not attracted to the water, they were crawling up and down the side of the barrel where my boy dog Cotton had peed on it.

Jerry
Reply

As for the vinegar, I add a tablespoon per gallon of syrup when feeding bees in order to reduce mold growth. The bees seem to be OK with it. They like a pH in the hive that’s lower than 7 anyway.
An beekeeping old-timer in Vallejo suggests a dripper onto bare dirt under a tree across the yard from the hives so that the bees get their minerals from the soil under the tree. Best if in the shade so it stays moist. In our yard the bees use a birdbath with wine corks floating in it. :-(The raccoons share the facility)-:

Mike F
Reply

They also take water from damp washing hanging out to dry. You just hope they don’t defecate at the same time…

Karen Hamburgee
Reply

Hi Rusty

Do you have a recipe for a salt solution for bees?

I am trying to provide sustenance for a feral honey bee hive that is somewhere in my neighborhood. I provide water and sugar solution and I thought some minerals would be good too.

Couldn’t find any peat moss at the garden center that didn’t have fertilizer in it. Will keep looking.

Love your blog

Karen

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

You can add a small amount of mineral salt to the sugar water. Mineral salt is sold in feed stores in 50-pound bags or you can buy a “bunny wheel” which is just a small mineral salt lick for rabbits. I take one of these and pulverize it with a hammer. Then just add a small pinch.

Rachel_B
Reply

Thanks for this useful article! I have a very small stream that runs behind my house. It often dries up in the summer with Oklahoma heat, but in the spring it is like bee and wasp heaven. I thought it could be for shallow water, or even mud, but I still needed confirmation. This article was very informative.

(Ps: I am an amateur photographer and those bees in the spring make an excellent subject. I tried to attach a picture I took of one of these bees, but I couldn’t. )

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