Pollinator hydration

Our newly-assembled pollinator watering station

As I write this, it’s supposed to reach 90 degrees on the farm. The morning started out perfectly cloudless, except for the reddish haze of high-altitude smoke from distant forest fires. Even before we finished some weeding among the green beans before breakfast, we were breaking a sweat. This was going to be another hot one.

Hot, compounded with the drought this summer, makes for a serious challenge on the farm. Much of the day is spent hauling water to the animals and dousing down the pigs to help keep them from overheating. Because there has been so little rain, keeping the gardens and flowers watered becomes a second full-time job.

Thank goodness we had laid out our soaker hose irrigation this spring in much of the garden, while we save our overhead sprinklers for evening watering of squashes and zucchini. Overhead watering on a hot, sunny day is not only wasteful because much of the water evaporates, but the beads of water on the leaves of the plants condense the sunlight and burn the leaves — not a win-win. Hydration is important, but it needs to be smart hydration.

It’s also important to think of the needs of our wild friends as well. Normally, pollinators like bees and butterflies find puddles and other small collections of water for drinking. In a drought, these resources literally dry up. Instead, they’ll try to drink water from the buckets and troughs for the livestock. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that the sides of these vessels are slippery, and the bees can fall in and drown. The animals are also irritated by the bees, and if there are too many at or in a trough, the animals won’t use it and then they’ll get dehydrated.

With this in mind, we decided to set up a pollinator drinking station in the garden. Not only would this feature attract pollinators to the garden, but it would also offer a nice wet and shady oasis on a hot day. These oases are easy to make, and you, too, could make one for your backyard. Here are some considerations when creating a pollinator friendly drinking fountain.

Use a vessel you can clean. No one likes scummy water, even insects. Have it be something you can dump out periodically and scrub up before refilling. The vessel should be watertight and able to be outdoors full-time. We used a galvanized tub that we had on hand, but a shallower plastic tote would work as well.

Choose a dish with a wide surface area. It’s OK for the dish or be very shallow if you can refill it often. If you plan to only refill every day or so, choose a little bit deeper dish so it can have more reservoir for evaporation. An especially deep bin or bucket, however, will not be inviting to the bees or butterflies as they will feel it is harder to escape should a predator encroach.

Provide some shade so that the water doesn’t overheat. No one likes drinking hot water when it’s hot outside too. Just like how a hose filled with water sitting in the sun can grow very hot, so can a dish or tub of water, especially if the dish is black. This could be in a shady spot in your garden or by your house, or you could create some shade if it’s in an open area. I used a plywood three-sided box that the turkeys have as a nest in springtime. Don’t be surprised if toads and frogs also utilize this shade during the day. These are beneficial helpers that eat insect pests in your garden, so providing them shelter creates a win-win.

Provide plenty of landing places. These should be materials that are very easy for bees and butterflies to hold onto, like wood or rocks. Make sure that, no matter what the water level is, your pollinator friends will always have a safe place to land while drinking. If they do not, they can fall in and drown — no.

Provide a way out for other thirsty visitors. Make sure something easy to grab onto (like a stick or branch) is included in your water station so that other thirsty creatures that make their way into the dish can find a way out. This could include mice or frogs. We’ve found mice and squirrels swimming in our livestock tanks because they were thirsty and fell in. Of course, unlike the pollinators, they cannot then fly away. Give them a way to scramble out, so that you won’t find such a desperate situation at your watering hole.

Keep your dish filled. Once the pollinators become accustomed to finding much-needed water at your setup, it’s important to be consistent. Otherwise, your winged friends may become exhausted trying to find an alternative source during their busy day of collecting nectar and pollinating.

Once you have your water station ready, enjoy checking in on this new oasis you’ve created. You may have some surprising visitors after the “word” gets out amongst the wildlife.

Whew, time for me to hydrate with some iced tea as well. See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.

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