Why bees need water and how you can safely provide it for them?

21.01.2019. 12:00

Water is the basis of all life on Earth and without it the life as we know it would not be possible. Some organisms don’t need oxygen to survive such as plants which take in CO2 and mainly use sunlight to get energy through photosynthesis.

Organisms living at the bottom of the oceans never get any sunlight and yet they manage to survive by getting energy from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. However, all of them have something in common - water. Every living thing, ranging from tiny bacteria to animals and plants, needs water to survive.

Luckily, water is everywhere as it covers 70% of Earth’s surface. Like any other living thing, bees also need water to survive. Searching for water and collecting it are some of the main duties of worker bees, and the whole colony depends on it.

We already know that bees drink water but what else could they do with it? Why bees need a constant flow of water to the hive? The answer to these questions we will answer in today’s article. But first, we should cover general things on why water is valuable for all organisms, including bees. What makes water so valuable?

Properties of water which are important for sustaining all life

Water has some properties that make it a unique substance which cannot be replaced with any other. No life form that we know can survive without water for a long time, and it doesn’t matter if other nutrients are taken. To be able to answer the question of why is water essential for life sustain, we surely have to explain what makes water a unique substance.

Liquid form in a wide range of temperatures

One of the most important properties of water occurs because liquid form is a better medium for the transport of nutrients and other life-sustaining compounds. You can imagine that transport of nutrients through a solid form would be pretty difficult.

Good solvent

In the past, water has been called the universal solvent. Many kinds of substances can be dissolved in water, which is essential for the transport of nutrients and for flushing out toxins and waste products.

The reason for water being such a great solvent is the polarity of water molecules. Each molecule of water is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and two atoms of oxygen. The oxygen atom has a negative charge while the hydrogen atom has a positive charge.

This means that a molecule of water has both positive and negative charge, which makes water molecule ‘sticky’. Because of stickiness water molecules are attracted to each other but also attract other polar molecules. Water molecules sticking to other molecules is what makes water an excellent solvent for many substances.

Has surface tension

An occurrence of surface tension is directly related to the polarity of water molecules. The stickiness of water molecules causes the surface of the water to behave like a very thin membrane. You can see it whenever an insect walks on water. The insect’s legs are so tiny that they don’t break the ‘membrane’ of water surface and the insect can't fall into the water when walking on its surface.

Since water molecules are sticky, they tend to clump together and allow the water to be sucked up as a continuous stream through plant roots or circulated through blood vessels against the force of gravity.

Easily distributed naturally and influences climate

Water is the only natural substance which naturally occurs in all three forms. In nature water continuously moves on, above, and below the surface of the Earth in a cycle known as the water cycle. During the water cycle, water goes through all three forms so life on Earth gets the benefits of all three phases of water.

All life on Earth needs water, so its availability plays a big part in survival. Thanks to the gaseous form of water, it can be easily distributed all over the planet. Some amount of liquid water with sunlight turns into its gaseous form which is less dense so it floats into the atmosphere.

Since water molecules are sticky, they stick to dust particles in the air and clump together into a cloud. In cloud form winds blow water across the planet so water can be distributed all over in the form of rain or snow.

Moreover, water cycle involves the exchange of energy which results in temperature changes. For evaporation water takes energy from its surroundings and cools it, while during condensation water releases the energy and warms its surrounding. Since this exchange of energy influences climate, it is crucial for keeping the environment at an optimal temperature for the survival of all creatures.

Another good thing about the water cycle is that it replenishes the Earth with fresh water through the evaporative phase of the cycle.

The solid form of water (ice) is less dense than its liquid form

Without this property of water, life would probably not be possible. Since ice is less dense than liquid water, it floats in liquid water and prevents the freezing of the whole water body. Imagine how hard would it be to have life in water if every winter the whole water froze and killed all life in it.

Life in water can survive thanks to this property because the ice floats at the water surface and keeps the water under it relatively warmer. Considering that life started in water if ice was denser than liquid water then life would not have proper conditions to develop.

High specific heat

Water can absorb a lot of energy without changing its temperature much which helps maintain the planet’s temperature. If you live close to the sea you probably noticed that winters close to the sea are not as harsh as winter further away from it.

That’s because the sea absorbs the heat in summer and that heat is slowly released during winter. Absorption of excess heat prevents overheating of the Earth’s surface and is also great for summer swimming. The water in our blood works the same way, it helps us maintain our body temperature. However, high specific heat is also beneficial for water vapor because vapor acts as a greenhouse gas and keeps the Earth warm enough to sustain life.

Why bees need water?

Now that we have become familiar with why is water necessary for all life on Earth, we can jump into the importance of water for bees. Bees need water for the same reason as any other living being, but they also have some specific uses for water. Continue reading and we will explain how bees use the water.

#1 Humidity and temperature control in the beehive

Honey bees have to keep the temperature and humidity inside the hive at an optimal level. Optimal temperature is 35°C which can be an issue in hot summer days. If the temperature goes higher then the colony can be in danger; high temperature can even cause the melting of wax combs. Since vax honeycomb is basically an all-purpose space to bees, its destruction is devastating for the colony.

Water is used for evaporative cooling which works similarly to human-designed air conditions. Firstly, bees spread a thin film of water on top of sealed brood cells or on the rims of cells with larvae or eggs. Worker bees flap their wings quickly and create an airflow inside the hive which evaporates the water and cools the interior of the hive.

#2 Digestion is impossible without water

Like most other organisms, bees also need water to digest and metabolize their food properly.

#3 Bee food needs lots of water

The food for developing bees requires some preparation and it contains lots of water, around 70%. Larvae food is secreted by hypopharyngeal glands of worker bees, and to produce it they need to have honey, pollen, and water.

Adult bees also need water for food as they eat honey. Honey that bees store in honeycomb crystalizes after some time and the concentration of concentration glucose increases. Because of a high concentration of glucose, bees need water to dilute the honey.

Moreover, some beekeepers feed their bees with dried sugar crystals which also aren’t usable to bees unless they have water available. The crystallized sugar bees melt in water and only then can use it as a food source.

Every bee colony has worker bees whose main task is collecting water and if necessary other worker bees will also join them. Every bee collecting water usually makes about 50 trips, each time collecting about 25 mg of water. When there is not enough water in the hive, then foraging worker bees will quit forage and help with water collection. In summer high, a colony may need several liters of water per day.

Bees need a reliable source of clean water

Even though a major source of water is nectar, bees also need other sources of water. Since bees actively search and collect water, they will collect water from any puddle, swimming pool, river, lake, or water trough which is close to the hive.

During summer and winter months water sources can dry up or freeze which can prevent the colony from being able to collect water. When the queen starts laying eggs in winter months, bees collect water from the walls of the beehive. But as the number of young bees increases, bees need more water to prepare food which results in water from the beehive not being enough.

Because of the lack of water bees have to go outside to collect it even if the temperature is low. In a search for water bees will go out of beehive even if the outside temperature is lower than 10°C (50°F). Flight in such low temperature is deadly for the bees and many don’t make it back to the hive.

However, if the outside temperature is too low for bees to even try to go outside, the lack of water will result in stopping of brood (young bees) rearing and in the end can be deadly for the colony.

Since bees collect water from wherever they find it, the water they find can be bad for them. Sick bees might have been collecting the same water and a healthy bee colony could easily pick up diseases or other harmful organisms. Moreover, many people use pesticides which can drip onto the ground and poison the morning dew which is also a source of water for bees.

But poisoned dew is not the only issue, leftover water from washing equipment used for spraying pesticides can also poison the bees. A study has shown that hypopharyngeal glands in bees poisoned with pesticides are less developed. Since hypopharyngeal glands are used to feed young bees, pesticide poisoning can be destructive for the colony.

Tips on how to safely provide water to bees

There are many ways you can help bees get clean water but you have to be careful with how you provide it. Since bees are small they can easily drown in the water you set up for them, so you should follow some guidelines on how to safely provide water to bees.

Only fresh and clean water should be used

By changing the water regularly, you can reduce the chance of bees getting sick or infesting the hive with some parasites. For additional protection, you should regularly clean the container with water. Usually, bees are kept on the water surface because of surface tension, but if there is any other chemical in water they drown.

Corks, twigs, or stones in the water will prevent bees drowning

Like we already mentioned, bees can easily drown so you should always have some stuff floating in the water. This way bees can safely stand on water and not drown. However, be careful about how much water you put in a container because the rain can cause the water to overflow so whatever you put for bees to stand on can be underwater or washed out of the container.

The water container should be wide and shallow

Like we already mentioned, bees don’t need deep water because they can easily drown. If one bee starts drowning, other bees will try to help and that can start a chain reaction of drowning bees. Moreover, one of the ways the bees search for water is by searching for water vapor which occurs above the water. For this reason, the container with water should be bigger so there is more water vapor.

The water source should be close to the hive

The further the water source is from the hive, the greater the energy bees need to use to obtain water which results in the smaller honey surplus available for the beekeeper.

The water source should never be let to dry up

If you have only a few colonies, you can provide water to your bees inside the hive. You can use a syrup feeder or other container which will prevent bees drowning. However, if you provide an outside source of water for your bees, you should be careful to always keep it filled.

Once bees locate a good source of water they tend to continue using it even when other sources are available. To avoid having issues with unsafe water or water from sources where bees are a bother to other people, make sure that bees have the water source available. If you may want to teach your bees to use a different water source, you can entice them away by putting a bit of salt in the water meant for them. This alternate source must not dry up or the bees will go back to their previous source.

Some simple ways to set up a water feeder for the bees

The number of ways to provide water to bees is endless, limited only by your imagination. The methods range from very simple and cheap ones to setting up the whole garden just for bees. Here are some ideas on how you can provide water to the bees:


  • Set a chicken waterer.

  • Take a bird bath and decorate it with wine corks, twigs, pebbles, and a little bit of moss.

  • Fill the frisbee with clean rocks and put it under a faucet outside so the water can slowly drip inside it and provide water for the bees.

  • Get glass pebbles and put them in a wide and shallow container with water, but make sure that pebbles are not completely submerged.

  • Set up a water garden with waterfalls and fountains so moving water attracts bees and deters mosquitoes. You can add some aquatic plants so bees have something to stand on.

  • Allow a leaky faucet to drop onto a board.

  • Take some glass jar that you don’t need anymore and hang it upside down with some cloth covering the opening. Of course, clean the jar well before setting it up as a bee water source. If you want for bees to get used to this water source soon, you can put some honey on the edges of the jar or put some sugar in the water.

Always make sure that the water for the bees is clean and safe

Bees need water and there is no life for them without it, but they cannot use just any water. The water source meant for bees needs to be clean and safe. Dirty or contaminated water can easily spread diseases or some organisms harmful to the bees, which can be destructive for the colony.

To keep the water feeder clean change the water regularly and make sure that the container is clean. The best practice would be to clean the container every time you change the water. Moreover, if you have set up water feeders inside the hive make sure that every beehive has its own feeder.

You can switch up feeders between colonies if you have to, but take special care about the cleanliness of those feeders. Also, avoid using feeders from sick colonies in your healthy bee colonies. We know that getting bees used to a specific water source can be tricky, but it is one of the essential things for the survival of bees.

Letting your bees find natural water sources is easy, but if it gets contaminated the consequences can be terrible. By providing your bees with a controlled source of clean water, you can be sure that your bees have all they need to continue being happy little buzzers.