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.