honey bee nutrition

Honey bees love that dirty water, but why?

Bee drinking from a slimy water source. Pixabay

Bees find water by smell rather than sight. If water is too clean, the bees might miss it. Algae, chlorine, moss, and earthy odors easily attract thirsty bees.

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.


Water sources for bees: a pour of fresh concrete in a wooden frame is attractive to thirsty bees.
Soon after this photo was taken, the bees began drinking from the wet concrete.


  • 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.

  • 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!! 🙂

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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)-:

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

  • 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,

      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.

    • I was just researching providing a water station for bees. I did read that providing sugar water will reduce the bees visiting flowers. I’m a beginner, so I don’t know if that’s accurate, but for whatever it’s worth…

      • Vicki,

        Flowers are the source of pollen for bees and they need it to raise their young. Sugar water may divert a few bees, but I don’t think it’s a real concern. The odor and flavor of nectar are certainly more enticing than sugar water. In the big picture, I think it’s kind of a non-issue.

  • 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. )

  • I wondered why bees hung around my pool. I had a pine tree next to the pool and it dropped a lot of pine seeds and needles and I developed a black ring of algae around the pool. It is hard to remove, but I noticed that where the bees were hanging out, it had actually decreased almost to nothing. Wondering why, I Googled the question, “Do bees eat algae” and viola, I now have an answer. Send a swarm over when I’m gone and let them devour the whole ring; it will save me a lot of work.

  • I just bought a giant bag of garden soil to plant some new stuff around the yard for my backyard hive. I didn’t get much more than 3 or 4 in the ground yesterday so the bag is lying on the sidewalk in the back with a giant hole in it. When I came out this morning, a group of my girls were head down in the dirt sucking out the water. Almost makes me wanna consider filling their watering hole with top soil and saturating it through the day.

  • Thank you for the article! I came across it while searching how to make a bee watering station. 🙂 Just a word of caution for anyone who’s thinking to add vinegar to their animals’ watering dishes – do not do so if the container is galvanized or anything other than stainless steel, glass, etc. The vinegar corrodes the galvanized metal (and can leach chemicals out of plastics, etc) and can harm your animals, especially birds!

  • After grooming the dog last year we put out a container of dog hair in the hopes that the birds would use some as nesting material. I forgot about it after a while. Weeks later, after the rain passed, the wet, disgusting dish of dog hair was covered in bees! They loved it, despite the extra gross wet-dog stink!

  • Some of the bees from my hives gather on my back porch to collect water from plants I had started in pods , they even go into the pods with wet dirt in them and on leaves of the plants to gather water. I have water near the hives and sometimes on extremely hot days high humidity I spray water on plants near the hives on trees and plants since they seem to collect water off them to .

  • Friends have been making little “bee baths” made from a concrete-like outdoor sculpting material called Pal Tiya.

    Would you know if any small residual alkalinity leached into the water would adversely affect bees?

  • I am so glad I found this blog and website! We recently had several days of long, steady rain that we desperately needed (it has been an unusually hot and dry summer). A nice surprise was finding honey bees swarming a clay pot with some neglected chives in it in standing water from the rains. No more flowers, just bulbs from the chives. The bees didn’t care…they came for the water! A couple of days later, and the standing water was gone but not the bees, so I poured some more water in there. They love it! I had no idea! I will keep it there for them. Thanks for the info!

  • Sorry but I live in Wiltshire, UK, and am horrified you have a very scant article on how to kill bees with soap.

    Here most cases for killing bees could be avoided with education and understanding that they would be gone soon or that the big guys, males, don’t actually have a sting in many cases. Sad.

    • Sylvia,

      Sometimes colonies need to be killed so they do not transmit disease to other colonies, or sometimes they have excessively dangerous temperaments. In those cases, I would rather the bees be killed with soap, which doesn’t contaminate the environment, rather than with pesticides that do. I am “horrified” and saddened that people don’t understand this simple concept.

  • […] I love this photo, and it’s a good reminder to make sure your honey bees have a source of water that they can reach easily and not drown. This is especially important if your neighbors have pools, water features, pet dishes, or sprinklers in their yards. It’s best to keep both the neighbors and the bees happy by making sure they have plenty to drink close to home. For more on water supplies see “Love that dirty water.” […]

  • Could bees tapping into pool water be the reason the honey jar I just opened up reeks of chlorine? It’s actually concerning, though, because the honey appears to have been perfectly scooped out, like perfectly concave in the center with honey all around the sides of the jar, and around the top edge where the honey touches the jar, the honey looked crusty and discolored. I think there might be some bacteria growth going on. What do you think? Makes me afraid to use it.

    • Elaine,

      No to the chlorine. The water bees drink does not stay in the honey stomach and is not processed into honey. Also, it’s virtually impossible for honey to support bacterial growth, which is why it is used to dress wounds. It sounds like your honey is crystallizing in the jar, a completely natural and harmless process.

  • I would love to have slime bowls out for bees. How do you keep mosquitos from breeding like gangbusters in them?

    I put out bowls today filled with riverbed rocks so they could climb safely down to the water to drink. I feel like if they are visiting my flower beds, they will find them. Perhaps the faint smell of city water and chlorine they put in that? I know it has no minerals, but at least they have water.

    I am still learning, and maybe there is a better way. It’s not rained here in over a week, and not supposed to rain for another week. It’s in the 80s now and it’s dry as could be out there. My native bees don’t fly far and other insects need water too. It’s a start.

  • I noticed my bee love eating the algae build-up under my hydroponics grow tower’s, had me wondering why…grow some watermelons wanted to encourage more bee and other pollinators.

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