honey bee behavior

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.


  • I see bees drinking from my birdbath, the soil in my potted plants and as of two days ago, drinking/eating the pulp of blueberries that have been ripped open by my nemesis, Japanese Beetles, or wasps. I was fascinated.

    • Anna,

      I haven’t seen that but I’ve seen bumble bees eating ripe peaches right on the tree. They just drill a little hole through the skin and go for it. That, too, was fascinating.

  • I wish there was a way to see where they are going for a drink. I have a great dirty fountain with running water, wood and rocks but they aren’t going there. I have a ground stream that seeps out for a while and then back under but they are not going there? I live in a big city so I worry their source will dry up in winter. Will they come looking for the wonderful resources I’ve created for them or will they keep searching away from the hive?

    • Daphne,

      Bees will use a water source close to the hive if it meets their standards. Water sources in the winter are not so critical because the bees mostly stay inside the hive where they use moisture that condenses on the inner surfaces.

  • My father lives in Eastern Europe and is good friends with a beekeeper. He (the beekeeper) has a lot of fruit trees, but he picks very small amounts. Instead, he leaves most of the harvest for his bees. He says they love all sorts of cherries, even the sour ones, and apricots.

  • “Social drinker” !!! Thanks for the chuckle, Florence!

    My bees like the plastic wading pool set under the valve of one of the tanks to salvage drips from the hose that fills the stock trough. It stays pretty green and scummy, and has a !!permanent!! frog population. My guess is that in 300 million years, they haven’t encountered much clean water, and haven’t adapted to recognize it as something to drink.

    I don’t know if you have heard of Kentucky’s cringe-worthy “Creation Museum” run by a group called Answers in Genesis. Educated people, especially scientists, living here develop a permanent facepalm reaction when it is mentioned. One regional beekeeper mentioned keeping a couple of hives on their grounds (seems honey bees are an argument for “intelligent design.” Another facepalm). I said, “Well, don’t try to tell them how long honey bees have been on Earth.” He replied, “6,000 years – like us and every other creature.” You don’t want to hear the rest of the discussion.

    BTW, I changed e-mail servers and forgot to notify you. Missed you, this and your other subscribers.

    Take care,
    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, Kentucky

  • Perhaps these are the sources that the scouting bees have safely come back from so these are the places they dance the directions for. If a bee has a near-drowning experience in a water source she may not choose to tell the hive to go there for water, and if a bee drowns, she can’t tell the others.

    Another thought, traditionally/naturally shallow water tends to stagnate faster than deep water. Bees have been naturally selected for preference to stagnate, shallow water.

    • Heidi,

      “. . . near-drowning experience . . .” I like that; I wonder if they see white light at the end of a tunnel.

  • Rusty,

    My bees have two favorite watering holes now that we’ve dried up enough to not have any standing water. One is on the cabbage leaves after the sprinklers are done. Actually, many of the other insects are using it too, such as yellow jackets. The other location is a watering trough with a green algae growth on the surface. I’ve sent you a photo in email.


  • Hi Rusty,

    Sixteen days after The last comment, I bought a swarm and placed it in a Warre hive. Not more than 5 feet from the hive, I placed a round shallow plate full of water and river rock to minimize drowning. I thought the location of the water was convenient, but the bees had other ideas. For the next two months, and I might add warm months (Oklahoma), they got their water from who knows where. In addition, I have a large Koi pond not more than 25 feet from the hive. Did they use it? No.

    Go forward to the present time. The bees started to use the convenient water hole in Feb. why? Only God knows. On the south side of my Koi pond, the bees have found something they like in a small narrow washout. What ever it is they are consistently there. That’s why I love bees. They make life interesting.

  • Hey Rusty,

    My husband and I are newbies and we’ve found so much great information on your website, but we need some additional help.

    We got two beehives last June, so although this is our second year with bees, it’s our first spring. We have a hot tub, and the bees never paid any attention to it at all last year; they used the wading pool and birdbath we set up for them, but this year they fly straight past them and straight for the hot tub. We love our bees, but it’s extremely annoying to have them buzzing all around your head and landing on you while you’re trying to relax.
    Not only that when the lid is closed, they still try to find water there and we’re finding dead bees all over the lid – almost like they’re frying in the heat. Furthermore, our neighbour isn’t happy about the beehives, even though he’s three hundred feet away from them and we know if they decide to do the same thing with his pool, he’ll call the authorities on us.

    What can we do? As I said, we have a wading pool, and a birdbath that we add water to every day, so that we can keep it low enough to prevent drowning of our girls, but high enough so there’s plenty of water for them. We tried putting a tiny (tiny) bit of bleach in the water to simulate the hot-tub water, but we think it’s the fact that the hot tub water is really warm (it’s snowing today and they’re flying) and that when they fall in, we save them.

    Thanks for all that you do Rusty. 🙂

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