A fuzzy, black and yellow bee stands in water with its proboscis out.

If You’re Thirsty, They’re Thirsty: Make A Simple Water Source To Support Pollinators

By Deborah Seiler

Water sources are crucial for every habitat

Everyone needs water! This includes our favorite animals. Honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are familiar visitors to bird baths during warm weather, but they’re far from the only species that require access to a safe water source. 

Adding a water feature to your yard, garden, or balcony can be an easy way to create much-needed habitat for many fascinating animals. All sorts of bees and beetles will stop by for a sip. Birds, of course, will cool off with a bath. 

A large fluffy bee drinking from a shallow pool of water”
Bees of all sorts, including bumble bees, and this, very convincing, bumble-bee-mimic digger bee (Anthophora bomboides) need to visit water sources to drink. (Photo: Sean McCann).


Some insects and amphibians will even spend most or all of their lives in a pond! For example, while dragonflies and damselflies, well, fly around as adults, they need water to reproduce. Adults lay their eggs in or near water, and most of their life is spent underwater in the aquatic immature stage, called a nymph or larva. Some bugs, like diving beetles, will happily stay in the water even as adults. 

Any water feature, large or small, can make a big impact. Even a humble puddle can be an important habitat, especially to butterflies, who flock to the minerals and salts left on the surface of wet mud. These aquatic microhabitats form part of a larger network that supports biodiversity and provides refuges in urban landscapes. 

Many monarch butterflies landed in a muddy puddle to drink
In the wild, muddy puddles can draw in many butterflies, like these monarchs. You can achieve a similar effect without getting mud on your shoes by providing a shallow bowl of water. (Photo: Carly Voight / Xerces Society).

How to build a water source for wildlife

First, scan your yard for places that bugs are already using as nests or shelter. These might include hollow stems, bare dirt, or brush piles of leaves or old wood. Or if you are working with a deck or balcony, simply alongside your plant pots. Then, choose a sunny place nearby to provide a shallow source of water. This might be a bird bath, or a bowl with stones on which bees and wasps can perch safely without slipping. To try attracting butterflies, you can add dirt to your basin and maintain a tasty mud puddle. 

If you want to install a bigger water feature, like a pond, try to provide a sloping, or graduated, bank. Ponds or containers with vertical sides and no escape route run the risk of trapping and drowning wildlife like beetles, small mammals, and songbirds. With the right mix of features, your pond can become habitat for dragonflies and damselflies, who provide a dazzling aerial display.

A small backyard pond set up to support dragonflies. It is lined with gently sloping stones, and has aquatic plants with a few tall stems. An adult dragonfly is perched atop one.
A gently sloping stone shoreline and aquatic plants for perching, roosting, and laying their eggs, makes this backyard pond wonderful for dragonflies. (Photo: Jennifer Hopwood / Xerces Society).

Changing the water is enough to keep mosquitoes at bay

There’s one visitor you probably don’t want at your water source: mosquitoes. Pesticide sprays are not effective here. While they might kill a few adult mosquitoes, they also harm beneficial insects in your garden. Meanwhile, adult mosquitoes will fly in from elsewhere and new larvae will hatch. 

Instead, for something like a bird bath, simply dump and refill the water every few days to keep it free of mosquito larvae. For permanent water bodies like ponds, add a fountain, waterfall, or small pump to keep the water moving, since mosquitoes can only reproduce in still water. If you use an open water pump, be sure to add protective screening. Otherwise, the pumps will pull dragonfly and damselfly nymphs in and kill them. These solutions are more effective and safer for wildlife than mosquito pesticides.

Watching wildlife at your water source

Once your water feature is installed, keep your eyes out for these tiny visitors:

  • Mason bees (Osmia spp.) need mud to create their nests. In drier weather when mud is not available, they will frequently collect water in their crops and then carry it to the dirt in order to make their own mud.
  • Paper wasps (Polistes spp.) are social nesters that also collect water to make paper and cool their colonies in hot weather.
  • Digger bees (Anthophora spp.) also collect water in their crops, using it to soften the ground where they dig their nests. Some digger bee species make up to 80 water-collecting trips a day when excavating their nests.
A large dark bee sitting at the end of a plant stem that it has sealed with mud. Another sealed plant stem is visible below.
Without water to make mud, mason bees would struggle to build their nests. Placing your water source near nesting habitat, in this case cut plant stems, will make it easier for bees to begin reproducing in your yard. (Photo: Mace Vaughan / Xerces Society).

Since many native bees and wasps will resort to collecting water from puddles and ditches when other sources are unavailable, they can run the risk of exposure to harmful pollutants and pesticides. Providing a shallow source of unpolluted water for bees and wasps can improve their overall chances of nesting successfully by reducing the time they need to forage, as well as their risk of exposure to pesticides.

Resources and further reading

Deborah Seiler - Xerces Society
Director of Communications
The Xerces Society

Deborah Seiler joined the Xerces Society in 2021 as director of communications, bringing over ten years of experience representing environmental and research institutions. She has previously led invasive species campaigns in Wisconsin, coastal science communications with California Sea Grant, and served as CCO of Illinois Extension. Deborah attended University of California-Davis and University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied science communications, environmental behavior, and digital media. 

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