Water is essential for life. Surprising then, that bees don’t store water.
Despite their advanced social structures and their ability to stockpile and preserve honey, pollen and propolis in their hives, bees cannot store water. They share this inability with the rest of the animal kingdom. Like fire and wind, water is an element over which only we human beings can exert control. More or less. And for better or worse.
But bees have to forage for water, which means leaving the hive to find the water to feed their brood, diluting the honey and making pollen stores more manageable. In cold weather, this can be a life-or-death excursion, since bees fall into a “chill coma” when exposed to temperatures below 10C over a short period of time – especially if they have just taken on board a crop full of cold water to take back to the hive. Water really is a matter of life or death for bees.
Let’s not despair. Bees don’t need expensively-packaged, designer-water: they like their water source to be reliable first and crystal-clean second. So if you have a leaky pipe-joint, or a shady patch where beads of morning dew still sparkle at noon, or a persistent puddle of dubious purity, the bees will favour that. I wrote a blog post in 2013 about the congregation of bees at the ventilation pipe of my central-heating system – all coming to take advantage of this regular supply of condensed H2O.
One year, I even tried a drip-feed-bottle water system into the hives, with old water bottles screwed into a nozzle which retained the water at the aperture for the bees to drink, without the jeopardy of leaving the hive in mid-winter. It was fusssy to maintain and I did not detect any improvement in the bees’ build-up the next spring, so I haven’t used this strategy again. Indeed, bees can take advantage of natural condensation in their hives (which must be kept away from the bees and brood – or risk suffocation as their spiracles get blocked) by careful arrangement and then licking the liquid off the interior hive walls.
And if you are ever tempted to put a nice bucket of water in the middle of your apiary in times of drought, please don’t! In my experience, a flotilla of little wooden rafts notwithstanding, your average, common-or-garden honeybee has a homeopathic dose of whatever it is which is supposed to make lemmings commit mass suicide by diving into water. Unless the water dribbles, beads, or puddles with a graduated, not steep, shoreline, you will be dismayed by the number of drowned bees. Of course, a sufficient quantity of water-foragers will not drown and will bring the water of life back to the rejoicing hive. Mission accomplished. But instead, let me recommend the practical solution adopted by Berlin beekeeper, Dominik, to provide a safe and reliable water supply for his bees. An inspired device.
So let me leave you with two eternal truths: Water doesn’t flow uphill. And bees can’t swim.