The value of water is often not recognized by beekeepers. The reasons are plentiful and attention must be paid to providing important moisture to a colony for its activities.
Many areas where bees are located may experience dry times during the course of the year. When intermittent creeks cease to flow and tree leaves show signs of moisture stress, bees become more noticeable to the general public. This can add up to telephone calls about honey bees collecting water from leaking faucets, bird baths, pet dishes and especially, swimming pools.
The beekeeper must provide a water source for bees if there is any likelihood the insects will forage in nearby urban areas during dry spells. Prevention is the only cure for this problem. Don’t let the bees become trained to a watering place like a swimming pool. Once a water foraging pattern has been set, it is almost impossible to do anything to change it.
Locating bees near accessible water is the best way to provide a continuous supply. It is also important to make sure that any potential water supply is not contaminated. Bee deaths have occurred in areas where rainfall runoff contained pesticides or other chemicals. If no source is located nearby, providing water in the apiary is possible, but often requires a good deal of planning and thought.
Fifty five gallon barrels or other containers can be filled with water and layered on top with wood floats to keep the bees from drowning. A problem with this kind of device is potential stagnation. Standing water has been implicated in spreading disease and it is a source of mosquito reproduction. Probably the best device is one that trickles water down a wooden board or slowly drips onto an absorbent material, keeping the surface damp.
Water can also be delivered inside a colony. This has been pioneered in dry areas and was found to also protect bees from pesticide poisoning. The technique consists of a inserting a feeder inside the colony filled with plain water. One similar to those used for feeding syrup is adequate. A disadvantage is that one feeder is required for each colony provided water in this fashion.
Dr. Elbert Jaycox, author of Beekeeping in the Midwest states:
“If you have a dog or cat, it is a safe bet that the animal has a water dish within your home or close to it. If you enjoy wild birds, what is the first thing you do to see more of them? You put out a bird waterer or bird bath. With livestock, whether penned or on the range, you make sure that good water is always available within a reasonable distance. But with bees, we usually put them out in the city or the country without a permanent source of water, often without a second thought about where they can get the water they need.
“The topic of water for bees is an important one right now when brood rearing is increasing rapidly, and it does not become passe until, in temperate climates, the bees are clustered within their hive for winter. I was going to say that readily-available water is less important during a nectar flow, but we are learning that this is not always the case, at least during hot weather in arid climates.
“Let’s look at the reasons why beekeepers should provide water for bees rather than forcing them to find it wherever they can. Right now, the bees in normal, strong colonies are rearing brood–the amount increases every week. Brood food is primarily water, close to 80 percent the first day of larval growth and about 55 percent on the sixth day. No problem, you say, the bees produce larval food from the glands in their bodies. But the bees are eating stored honey with a moisture content of only 15 to 20 percent, which doesn’t give them much to draw on for larval food. However, there is water produced from the bees’ metabolism, and some of it may condense within the hive. But as soon as the bees can fly, they are out collecting water to dilute stored honey and to provide moisture in food for larvae and the queen. Without sufficient water, colonies do not develop.”
Long ago, Dr. Eva Crane reported that small colonies given only water developed more rapidly than those given syrup or those not receiving either water or syrup. In the F.A.O. book, Tropical and Sub-tropical Apiculture, Crane lists the failure to provide water as one of three serious management errors, and relates the lack of water to inadequate brood rearing and colony development. Not surprising because without 90 to 95 percent relative humidity in the cells, eggs will not hatch.
In warm weather, bees need water also for cooling the hive. W.R. Sheesley and E.L. Atkins reported in 1986 that in-field water increased bee visits to alfalfa flowers and, subsequently, the set of seed. The close source of water freed extra bees for nectar collecting. Not as many bees were required to search for and collect water.
Atkins reported in 1987 that in-hive waterers improved the ‘welfare’ of colonies equipped with them. Earlier, Moffett, Stoner and Wardecker recorded an increase in honey production from colonies with in-hive waterers. Such results are to be expected when you consider that the bees of one colony collected at least one-half gallon of water in 24 hours in experiments by A.W. Woodrow at Tucson, Arizona.
Dr. Jaycox concluded: “There are other important reasons for providing water to bees. With a nearby source of clean water, bees are less liable to collect dirty and contaminated water. They have been known to collect arsenic and insecticides in the only water available to them. Colonies provided with nearby or in-hive water have survived better with more brood and honey production during intensive insecticide applications around them.
“Water you provide can reduce nuisance problems when bees visit swimming pools, bird baths, wet laundry, and even newly-born born animals to obtain moisture. We can help ourselves now and in the future by making sure there is water in every apiary. Then, when we begin managing Africanized bees, we will have the equipment and techniques ready to make those bees more productive and to reduce their desire and need to abscond, which relates strongly to the availability of year-round water. We need more innovative, modest-priced ways to keep water in or near the apiary.”
Availability of uncontaminated water for the human population is mirrored in honey bee colonies. Reports of damage by beekeepers where bees were forced to use insecticide-contaminated water drives this point home. The fact that eggs will not hatch in dry conditions and larval feeding is to a large degree based on moisture content of food as stated by Dr. Jaycox cannot be ignored. Creatively using water in areas where pesticides are applied or under conditions where availability of moisture is marginal should be explored by the beekeeper.
Providing water is one of the most important beekeeping tasks. Many creative watering devices can be seen on youtube.com videos . Contributor Rusty Burlew published a public honey bee watering device in a park at Corvallis, Oregon.