When it’s hot in summertime, a full-size colony of bees will use a lot of water — a lot more than you think. At a minimum they’ll use a quart a day. Maximum, a gallon a day. For every colony you have. Think of how much that is for 10 colonies for a week of hot, hot weather. At the very least, that’s 10 quarts a day, for seven days — 70 quarts, or nearly 20 gallons of water, minimum if you allow for some of that water to evaporate naturally.
When large colonies start collecting a gallon a day, you have 70 gallons you have to have available — that’s more than a 55 gallon honey drum plumb full in just a week.
How to Provide Beehives with Water
And they will get that water somewhere. The closer that water is the better, of course. The easier the better. The safer the better. You do supply all the water your bees need, right? If you’re lucky, you have a nearby spring, river, lake or pond. Lakes and rivers are great if there’s not a lot of people traffic nearby, wading, fishing, or boating. But smaller bodies of water — puddles, creeks and ponds — can be problematic during hot summers, because they tend to go dry, right about the time the bees need them most. Keeping an ample supply of fresh water just for your bees is a no-brainer that we far too often overlook. So first, make that happen. How? Good question.
Build a pond. If you don’t have that pond, consider making one near your bees if possible. A small, continuously filled fish pond is ideal. Installing an automatic filler is necessary, and being able to disconnect it in the winter is also necessary, but it’s a good first choice. But, if that’s not in the cards…if you are on a roof for instance, a smaller version of this is possible, that is, a self-filling livestock watering device can work and is a good idea. They don’t go dry because a float valve turns on when the water level falls below a preset point and refills the water holder (just like the pond). Of course you have to have a dedicated water line to that device…and a flexible hose doesn’t work as well as a ridged pvc pipe, so there’s that hitch to get over, but it’s possible.
A slow-drip faucet works, but remember: A gallon a day per hive. It better not be too slow. Pails, pools, stock tanks, barrels…anything that holds enough water works. But the smaller the container, the more you have to fill it the more likely it will go dry on just the day the bees need it most. And once dry, they go somewhere else…bird baths, swimming pools, pet bowls, air conditioner drains…lots of places you don’t want a bunch of bees. Bees need water and will get it somewhere. You wouldn’t think of letting your dog, cat, chickens or other animals go without water. Why your bees?
Ventilation for Beehives
Screened bottom boards have taken a roller coaster ride in popularity during the past few years because of their role, or no role in Varroa IPM, but for ventilation Varroa plays no role at all. More than 120 years ago, A. I. Root suggested, and then made for sale screened bottom boards for his hives expressly for better ventilation. He used window mesh screen because he wasn’t worried about Varroa or other creatures, he just wanted fresh air inside.
Langstroth was insistent on having fresh air inside his hives and made certain there were many and large openings for air to go bottom to top and escape rapidly. For your bees, use screened bottom boards in the summer, and make sure there is escape above for all that warm, moist air to rise and release. If you use inner covers or crown boards raise them up so air can move up even faster than simply through the ventilation holes provided. Lift up the cover, too, for better air movement. The bees will guard the cracks and crevices you create, and you can always reduce them if you think robbing might be a problem…and it might if it is so hot that the plants have quit producing and scout bees find a weak hive to plunder.
Some beekeepers make sure each box has one less frame: nine for 10 frame, seven for eight frame, to widen just a bit the gap between frames to assist air movement — not a bad idea, especially if you have seen hives so hot the wax begins to sag. That is not a pretty sight. When it becomes very warm, say 110 degrees or so, it gets soft, and loses its shape and lets go of the frame if it is heavy with honey or brood.
If your climate is so hot, so very hot that sitting in the afternoon sun rises the inside temperature to wax softening conditions, then afternoon sun, no matter that Varroa or small hive beetles hate full sun, should be avoided. That dappled afternoon shade isn’t all bad.
Some beekeepers go so far as to offset supers on the back side of the hive, leaving a one inch gap or so, so hot air can escape from every super and not have to travel all the way to the top of the stack. Bees will guard these entrances, and even in very rainy weather little water will get in the hive, and then, it will simply run out the front door. The increased ventilation these gaps allow more than makes up for this small inconvenience.
And better ventilation is good for other things than just being cool. Think honey dehydration…you need to stay hydrated, but your bees want to dehydrate all that honey they are bringing in. And if warm, moist air can’t readily escape, it takes more bees fanning to get it dry, and until it’s dry there’s less room to store incoming nectar…it’s a downward spiral from the bees’ perspective…so give ‘em room, give ‘em ventilation, and give ‘em enough water to get them through another hot, hot summer.
An automatic watering device is perfect for your bees because it doesn't go on vacation, take the day off, go somewhere else to work, or just plain forget to refill itself.
Full sun in the spring can be good because it keeps the hives warmer, but later in the summer, when it gets really hot, those trees in the back will provide some welcome shade.
Kim Flottum is the Editor-in-Chief of Bee Culture magazine, a leading beekeeping resources covering the practical side of keeping honeybees, from one or two colonies to hundreds. He is the author of In Business with Bees, The Honey Connoisseur, and The Backyard Beekeeper, among others. Before writing about bees, Kim worked four years in the USDA Honey Bee Research Lab, studying pollination ecology. Read all of Kim’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.