In 1966, the Standells released their hit song “Dirty Water.” Most likely your local bee colony went wild over it because it fit their style perfectly. 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.
Attractive water sources for bees
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 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, algae, 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.
Water with nutrients and edges
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. Saltwater 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: Some folks say that 2 tablespoons of vinegar in 1 gallon of water keeps 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.