You can take a horse to water

Water Source
Water Source

In summer 2015, several Bedfordshire beekeepers were fortunate to be invited to take their bees to a local farm to pollinate a borage crop. It is important when providing bees for pollination that both bees and beekeepers are on their best behaviour! So, every effort was made to ensure the optimum ratio of colonies per hectare and hives were located around the crop to ensure even pollination. Hives were placed at mutually agreed sites, away from footpaths and out of the way of farm machinery. The farm gates were locked at night to prevent trespass, so there was good coordination between beekeepers and farmer to arrange vehicular access to deliver hives on agreed evenings when the crop was about to come into flower. Farmer and beekeepers all looked forward to a good yield. What could possibly go wrong…?

Well, a few hot summer days after moving the bees to the crop, we were told that there was a problem: On the farm are some horse paddocks, and the bees were drinking from the horse troughs and stinging the horses. It seemed that other water troughs around the farm were used by the bees to some extent, but bees were particularly attracted to the horse troughs. It is known that bees prefer almost any water source other than clean water.  Some of the horse troughs had a lot of green algae, maybe this was an attraction. The water in the horse troughs came from underground water courses, not off the mains; maybe this water contained mineral nutrients attractive to bees. Bees certainly like drinking from damp seed compost, presumably for the same reason. One horse trough had a dripping hose connection – the bees just loved this slow leak to drink from! Bees, as you know, are very clever and once they have found a water source, they remember the location and they mark it with Nasonov scent to attract other bees. Water carrier bees make multiple trips back and forth throughout the day; back in the hive, water is evaporated to reduce the temperature, used to dissolve crystallised stores or used in making brood food.

Literature on the bees and water problem did not seem very encouraging or helpful; it stressed that bees drinking at water sources where they were unwelcome (like swimming pools) is common, but difficult to address. Various attractants are suggested such as salt or urine but no specific advice is given about how much to add to water to make it really attractive to bees. Nevertheless, we felt we needed to try and resolve this problem and maintain good relationships with everyone. We made a plan, collected the materials and “ingredients” we needed and set off to tackle the problem; explaining the bees’ behaviour to the stable hands and asking for their help. The plan was to construct a pond for the bees to drink from, and at the same time, block access to the water troughs, so hopefully changing the bees drinking habits.

With the farmer’s agreement, the pond was built on a patch of uncultivated ground between the borage fields and the horse paddocks, roughly on the flight path of the water carrier bees. To construct the pond, the farm manager kindly scooped out a huge wedge of soil with a wide bucket on the front of his loader. The base of the hole was roughly 3m square, sloping from ground level at one side to about 50cm deep the other side. We spread out a 5m square of damp-proof membrane in this hole, leaving the surplus membrane around the edge to form a rainwater catchment area. We then put in water, together with all the ingredients which might attract bees to drink. We added salt, urine, compost, water from the horse troughs, also lemons and geraniums which are two of the constituents in Nazonov scent. We know bees prefer a damp surface to drink from rather than open water, so we laid various materials down the slope and into the water; concrete posts, roof tiles, bricks. We also floated wooden planks, upholstery foam and hessian sacking on the water surface. As an additional experiment we put out buckets of water with floating wooden landing platforms, each laced with a single additive, to see which of our ingredients attracted bees.

The stable hands scrubbed all the water troughs clean and covered them with wooden lids. We also supplied them with some almond scented bee repellent, “Bee Quick”, which they sprayed round the troughs. They carried big heavy plastic containers of water to the far side of the field for their horses. They told us the saying is true, “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The horses didn’t like drinking from these plastic containers. Instead, they went back to the water troughs and kicked off the wooden lids. The lids were replaced and secured, forcing the horses to drink from their plastic containers. The most difficult horse trough to keep the bees off was the one with a dripping hose connection – Bee Quick did not seem to deter them in this instance; a new connection was needed.

That night there was a thunderstorm and heavy rain, which helped fill our pond.  The next day was cooler with puddles everywhere – no bees were seen drinking at all. However, several days later a few bees had started drinking from the pond, our plan seemed to be working! The stable hands – now fed up with carrying water and appreciating the huge volume a horse drinks – uncovered the clean drinking troughs and all seemed well. A couple of weeks later the pond was buzzing with bees, and wasps and flies. In the pond the bees’ preference was for drinking from hessian sacking and porous bricks. Our bucket experiment didn’t prove or disprove any of the theories, as the bees ignored them all. So much for scientific experiment on this occasion!  There’s more work still to be done to fully understand the water tastes of the honeybee.

Our pond was a success. We managed the bees’ behavior and re-trained their drinking habits. And we have maintained good relations with everyone at the farm. Beekeeping is never boring!

Gill Brewer & Colin Hall