Thursday, August 23, 2012

Drinking Bees

The waterfall at our outdoor classroom attracts more than just people.  It's the ideal place for some insects to stop for a drink.  There must be a honeybee hive somewhere near the school, because our waterfall has become a bee watering hole!
Honeybee drinking water on an algae-coated rock.
Honeybees are my #1 top favorite insect, which is ironic since I was scared of them as a child.  Once I learned about them, I grew to love them best of all.  Not only do honeybees make honey to feed their offspring and feed themselves, but while they are collecting nectar to make the honey, they pollinate flowers.  Most of our agricultural crops need to be pollinated by insects, and honeybees are the best pollinators.  Honeybees are so helpful to humans that farmers often have honeybee hives on their farms to make sure their crops are pollinated.  If you like nuts, berries, apples, cherries, squash, tomatoes or avocados, thank the bees for making them possible.  I love to think of our pond as helping the bees.
Honeybees drinking on our waterfall.
We've all seen bees pollinating flowers, but I bet few of us have been able to watch honeybees drinking.  A good, clean water resource is incredibly valuable to bees, especially in the city where water is hard to find.  Bee keepers make sure their bees have access to clean water, or they provide water dishes to their bees.  Bees, like all creatures, need to drink water.  The bees use the water to make the fluids in their bodies, and they also sweat like we do to keep their bodies cool.  Bees carry water back to their hives to help keep the hives cool and to dilute the honey to feed their larvae.  Bees fan wet surfaces in their hives with their wings, causing the water to evaporate, which cools the wet surface and the hive.  You can observe this phenomenon if you dangle a wet towel in front of a fan. 
The top level of wet rocks is safest for bees to drink from.
Water is a tricky substance for small creatures like bees to deal with.  It might be strange to think about, but water is sticky to most surfaces.  In fact it's so sticky, that you have to use a towel to get it off of yourself after you shower.  The more surface something has, the more water sticks to it.  Think of how difficult it is to dry your hair, which has millions of surfaces all packed together, compared to drying your skin, which is one surface.  The stickiness of water is both helpful and dangerous to bees.

The good part about the stickiness of water for bees is that it's easy for bee mouth parts to soak up water.  Bees have a feathery tongue that sticks to water like hair does.  The bee just has to touch its tongue to water, and water wicks into it.  You can see the phenomenon of wicking if you touch the edge of a paper towel to water and watch how the water climbs further on to the paper towel.  Paper towels that are thicker with more microscopic fibers to provide more surface wick better than thin, smooth paper towels.  Bee's feathery tongues have lots of surface and are good wickers.   You can see a bee tongue sipping nectar on the flower from my garden in the picture below, but the picture is not magnified enough to tell that the tongue is feathery.
Honeybee soaking up nectar and pollinating chive flowers.  Note battered wing and pollen sack.
The dangerous part about water's stickiness is that bees' bodies can easily get stuck to open water.  If a bee lands on the surface of the pond, its body will stick and it won't be strong enough to get unstuck from the water.  The bee will likely drown unless someone scoops it out and sets it on dry land (careful - it will likely be stressed and possibly sting if you use your hand to do this).  To protect themselves, bees must stand on hard surface and drink from water that has seeped onto the surface.  Leaves and sticks on the surface of a pond are good platforms for bees to drink from.  The rocks in our waterfall are perfect surfaces from which bees can safely soak up water.

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