Water Collection And Use

By Clarence Collison

Water is an important resource for the honey bee colony and a vital component in the honey bee diet.  Water is involved in carrying dissolved food materials to all parts of the body, assisting in the removal of waste products and involved in digesting and metabolizing food.  It is used to liquefy crystallized honey and is required by nurse bees whenever it becomes necessary to thin honey in the processing of larval food.  When fresh nectar is available this need is diminished.  Caged workers or queens readily take water when it is offered to them and live longer than bees that lack water.

Water is also used for cooling and humidifying the interior hive environment.  In hot, dry weather water is deposited on the tops of combs in small cell-like enclosures generally made of old wax and propolis.  It is also deposited in indentations in the cappings of brood so that the comb looks as if it had been sprinkled with water.  Lindauer (1955) observed that tiny droplets of water are also placed inside the cells, especially those containing eggs and larvae, where it prevents drying of the larvae.  Bees actively ventilate the hive interior by fanning and evaporating the water droplets by manipulation of the water upon the tongues of house bees.

Water foragers are experienced foragers and tend to collect water from the nearest available supply.  Water-gathering round-trips usually take less than five minutes.  A bee commonly spends a minute or more in taking up a load of water.  When a water carrier brings her load of water into the hive and climbs on the comb, she begins vigorous dancing.  Usually four or five bees follow each dancer, and at more or less frequent intervals the dancer pauses long enough to transfer a sip of water to one of the nearby workers.  At times a water carrier dances for a full minute before transferring her load.  Sometimes a water carrier enters, “performs” a brief dance, and then proceeds rapidly to dispose of her load.  Sometimes she gives a small amount to each of a half-dozen bees in quick succession before resuming her dance, and then, after dancing awhile, transfers the balance of her load to one or two bees.  It is not unusual to see two or three bees being supplied all at one time by a single water carrier.  In some instances, the entire load is disposed of to two or three individuals, while a single load may be distributed among as many as 18 workers.  The water is stored in honey stomachs of hive bees and sometimes in cells in burr comb.

Having unloaded, she begins preparation for her next field trip by securing a small amount of food from one or more of the house bees or she goes to a cell and takes honey.  Then she almost invariably gives her tongue a swipe between her front feet, rubs her eyes, often cleans her antennae, and then leaves quickly.  Water foragers continue to collect water as long as hive bees relieve them of the water in their honey stomachs.  They often make more trips per day compared to nectar or pollen foragers.  These “water specialists” my fly 50 to 100 trips per day.

Water foragers tend to collect water from the nearest available supply, especially if the supply is continuous.  If a water supply is not available within a quarter mile of the hives, provide a tank or pan of water with a floating board or crushed rock for the bees to land on.  When nectar and water are not available, bees cause problems by visiting sources of water such as water faucets, children’s wading pools, and bird baths.  Once they become accustomed to a watering place, they will continue to use it all during the foraging season.  Water must always be available close to the hives, starting the day a colony is established or moved.  The activity of the bees at the watering place can give you a clue about the nectar flow.  When the flow begins, the bees use dilute nectar in place of water, and very few bees continue to visit the regular source of water.  Extremely hot weather, however, may bring them back for water to cool the hive.

There is no doubt that water is very important to the survival of a colony.  In hot areas where water supplies are sparse, the consequences can be very serious unless water is supplied to the hives.  Since bees do not normally store water in the hive, except in the honey sacs of reservoir bees, bees confined for any length of time must be provided with water.