When you think of a honey bee what first comes to mind? Honey? Flowers? Bee stings?
Perhaps the childhood trauma of stepping on a worker bee foraging on white clover and getting stung is your strongest memory, hopefully followed by fond thoughts of sweet honey.
Honey bees are the most important insect pollinator of cultivated agricultural and horticultural crops worldwide, transporting tiny pollen grains on their hairy bodies from one flower to another.
This results in pollination and the production of a fruit, nut, vegetable or seed down the track.
This vital pollinator of our food production system is also livestock and, like any living thing, can get heat stressed.
Water is essential to all living things.
Honey bee workers forage from flowers, collecting nectar as their carbohydrate source which they convert into honey and pollen as their protein source, both of which they store in the honeycomb worker bees have built within the hive.
Once temperatures reach the upper 30s and into 40 degrees Celsius and above however, foragers switch from gathering nectar or pollen to water collection.
All worker bees in the hive are daughters of the queen and perform all the job tasks, save for viable egg laying, inside the hive including the regulation of temperature and relative humidity.
Some of these workers fan air in and out of the hive so inside it keeps between 33-35 degrees Celsius and 50 to 60 per cent relative humidity.
This is required to ensure developing bees in the hive don’t suffer heat stress or at worst die.
Water collectors will often fly to the nearest source of water.
However, if that source is over 100 metres away, the stress of flights back and forth in extreme temperatures could shorten the worker bees’ lifespan.
In the long term, this could decrease the population of the hive which could have negative effects on temperature control, overall hive health, and subsequent honey production.
Water is collected by workers and used to air-condition the hive.
On a hot day in the middle of summer a single hive may collect half a litre of water or more to maintain its internal temperature.
As beekeepers, we can help our honey bees by providing a close and uncontaminated source of water and ensuring our hives are shaded from late morning, or at least noon onward in hot summer locations.
It is important to maintain a water source at your apiary site, whether in a paddock or your backyard and keep this replenished in warm to hot weather.
Ensure bees will not drown by providing landing sites, for example rocks, branches or sand protruding above the water.
Pieces of polystyrene or aquatic plants floating in the water will also do.
Bees aren’t picky about what container the water – a plastic tub, polystyrene broccoli box and old concrete water trough suffice.
One type of container that should never be used to water bees is one that previously held chemicals or pesticides which could leach from the container and contaminate the water with potential negative effects on hive health.
Importantly, if your bees find your neighbour’s pool before you put a watering station out, it is impossible to stop them, short of moving the hives out of the area.
Finding the ideal location for your apiary will always be a compromise.
However, we all have the responsibility of keeping our bee hives adequately watered, with an uncontaminated source of water ideally 100 metres or less from the hive in dry, warm and hot weather.
Happy proactive beekeeping!
- Liz Frost is a honey bee specialist with the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
- Visit: www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/animals-and-livestock/bees.