Do your bees have food and water?

I find it curious that so many people keep bees without paying attention to their need to eat and drink. Nobody would keep a horse or dog without having food and water on hand, yet many beekeepers plunk a box or two down in the backyard and let bees forage for themselves. Here on our farm I plant-plant-plant as much bloom as I can for each season.

Bees will forage up to a few miles away. When they leave our land, I fret about what they may be exposed to.

Bee Friendly Garden book

As summer moves on, bees need more water. We have more acreage than most which gives me the liberty of planting “much and often.” Joseph and I planted an acre of sunflowers late in spring so they bloom toward the end of summer. In the Pacific Northwest, August and September are the driest months, but bees need food in all months so match your planting to your area, especially during dearth.

Even if you have a postage size lot in town, it all helps. There’s a fine book I recommend if you’re serious about planting for bees, “The Bee Friendly Garden: Design an Abundant, Flower-filled Yard that Nurtures Bees and Supports Biodiversity,” by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn. Wonderful advice for beekeepers in all kinds of climates, seasons, and conditions. (click the photo to  their book site.)

Bee Watering Stations

Today I’m focused on watering your bees. Why? If you don’t water them, your bees will find SOMEWHERE within flying distance to get water. If they find your neighbor’s swimming pool, you’ll have cranky anti-bee neighbors. Your bees may get into polluted or poisoned water after someone washes their car, drains antifreeze, or leaves tainted puddles around. It happens. If they can’t find water nearby, they travel long distances to a creek or pond, leaving exhausted bees who spend too much time searching for water.

Last night I popped in on an internet gardening discussion. They were commiserating about HONEYBEES AND OTHER PESTS in their ponds and birdbaths and (gasp!) sharing ways to kill the bees to keep them away. Please don’t let this happen to your bees.

It’s so easy to give them what they want and at the same time make your yard more beautiful. Here are some water stations we have around the farm and what it cost to make them functional.

Plain old bird bath
$20 at hardware store.  Really simple, I just added rocks, seashells and a few wood branches. Every morning I fill it.

Stock tank for livestock
$60-100 at farm store, plus a $35 fountain so we don’t breed mosquitoes. I added pond lilies and irises.

Concrete pond
This tiny old pond was here when we bought the farm. We’ve repaired it twice when the concrete cracked and I added plants and fountain.

Bees prefer to keep their feet out of the water and like to stick their tongues in cracks to drink. That way they don’t risk falling in. In the concrete pond, the bees can stay a few inches from the pond edge where the water is drawn by capillary action up into the cracks. No need to get their feet wet.

Here’s a really simple one. I just piled concrete pavers a few layers tall, laid down a sheet of pond liner large enough to overlap the edge to a depth of one row of bricks. Then we built the outside wall six inches higher than the inside level and pulled the liner over the first row of bricks Another course of pavers went on top of that so the liner doesn’t show, then I added water. I filled it with plants that like their feet wet. Suggestions are mint, calla lilies, asparagus fern. Pavers courtesy of craigslist for the rocking price of “you haul and they’re yours.”

This is part of a fountain I got at a yard sale for cheap. The fountain doesn’t work so I just keep the top part filled. I put an old piece of pink coral on top in the water and the bees really like it. Random seeds took up residence and are growing in there, too. It’s shallow so I fill this one every other day.

If you’re really industrious, here’s what Joseph and I are working on this week. A few years ago I paid $10 at a yard sale for a pre-formed pond liner. Our farm interns and I dug a hole and filled the new pond with water. From day one, the bees loved it. I didn’t level the bottom, however, so it eventually split. We decided to remove it and, hmm… yes, do it correctly this time.

We (Queen’s english, that actually means Joseph) dug a 10′ x 12′ hole, prepped the sides with shelves for plants, used flexible environmentally-slightly-better liner and collected rocks from our fields. It was a lot of work but, geez, it sure is pretty. Photo on the left is last week. Photo on the right was taken an hour ago. Yahoo!


Here are a few more simple watering ideas — I keep a bucket of seaweed submerged in water. I replenish the water as needed. The seaweed releases salts and trace minerals from the ocean and the bees like that. Gunther Hauk uses shallow dishes filled with small pebbles so the bees can put their tongues down into the little crevices while standing safely on the pebbles.

We are farmers and have plenty of stock tanks to water our animals. I always make sure I have forked sticks in them so any insect who falls in can climb up on the stick and get out. Has to be forked so they don’t do the log-roll trying to climb up. I actually find more native pollinators in the stock tanks than bees and this seems to help.

Bees are fond of crystals in water. My friends Robin and Jody created beautiful crystal watering sites for their bees. They use shallow bowls, like what you’d put under a potted plant, something with an edge that’s about two inches tall, and put all kinds of crystals and gemstones in them. Here’s a photo by Robin Wise of their bees in crystal water.

And now let’s get on to the important part:

How to Build a Bee Watering Station

Bees need water to drink and to help keep the moisture in the hive air at the right humidity. You can help them by building a bee watering station. Bees are quite friendly when they’re out getting water so you can get right up close to them to watch. I LOVE watching them drink and bet I spend  30 minutes a day doing that. I always think it’s been five minutes but then I realize I was in “bee time.”

Choose a location that’s out of your yard’s traffic flow. Bees fly to the watering station a few feet higher than the water. Pay attention to their in-and-out path.

Light shade or at least afternoon shade is best. In shade the water won’t evaporate as quickly. Be sure to check it daily as shallow water disappears fast. Once it’s established as a watering site, the bees will count on it so please remember to keep it filled.

A bird bath, large shallow bowl or small fountain works well. Put the water container three feet off the ground on bricks or concrete blocks.

Fill it with gravel stones and moss. That gives the bees something to land on and they won’t fall in and drown. They like to land and walk to the edge of the water to drink. Moss is particularly good because they can stand on top of it and drop their long tongues down into the water.

Keep it chemical free. Don’t use aluminum or other containers that might leach chemicals because they can harm bees. Same goes for moss and plants, always chemical-free.

Make it beautiful. Decorate it with quartz crystals, native moss, water-mint, or a sprig of flowers from your organic garden. Enjoy!


Jacqueline Freeman is the author of “Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World.”

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