Gardening for wildlife - Water for birds and bees

Updated: Mar 1

Encouraging birds, bees and other animals in the garden with a dish of water:

Putting out a dish of water, or two – one for birds and one for bees - is one of the simplest things we can do to encourage animals to use gardens. Why two? – birds need water with a bit of depth for washing, bees need something different so they can drink without the risk of drowning. Providing water will give wildlife a safe place to rehydrate and wash. Any dish will do, but there are top tips to make them safer and more attractive to animals.

Bird dish (left) and bee dish (right)

Getting it right for birds

Birds come in all different sizes and many small ones are put off by deep water. Choosing the right dish is important - for example slippery sides, as found in glazed ceramic dishes, can be difficult for birds to balance on. Birds prefer gradual and rough-textured edges, but placing a few large stones in the middle of any dish offers a choice of depths and an easy way for birds to get in and out. Like bird boxes and bird feeders, water dishes need to be kept clean to prevent the spread of disease, so simply cleaning the dish once a week is recommended. The water supply should be constant all year round - during winter freezes the dish should be kept ice-free by breaking up the ice or using tepid water, as it’s important for birds to still find water then. Finally, placing the dish near shrubs or trees provides a safe place for birds to approach from, and putting it somewhere you can see will allow you to enjoy the spectacle.

Honey bee drinking from the safety of a stone


Getting it right for insects

For bees and other insects, finding water can be dangerous as there is always a big risk of drowning if they get it wrong, and for this reason drinking from a bird bath is not ideal. The solution is to provide a separate dish that is filled with stones to above the water line. This offers insects a wide choice of surfaces to land on and to hold onto as they dip to drink. If they get it wrong and do a splash landing, the stones also provide a way to climb out and dry off.

The picture shows a bird bath containing some large stones on the left and a flint filled bee dish on the right, placed in our garden. The bees only come to the dish on the right, up to a dozen at a time - the odd one still does get it wrong and hits the water, but lives to pollinate another day by climbing back onto a stone. They very rarely try to use the adjacent bird dish, which is used by birds as big as jackdaws and pigeons and as small as dunnocks.


Why garden for wildlife?

Gardens are on average surprisingly biodiverse, containing thousands of species when you include all the animals, plants, fungi and single cell creatures. By creating habitats that encourage obvious creatures like birds, butterflies and hedgehogs, we can improve the habitat for the huge number of other organisms that are difficult or even impossible for us to see.

Providing water is the simplest of many things that can be done with wildlife gardening, these include: providing boxes for birds, bats and hedgehogs, refuges for amphibians and insects, wildflowers for butterflies, leaving a patch of uncut grass, creating a pond and managing hedges.

However, there are top tips available for getting each activity right. Encouraging us to garden for wildlife is a big national movement supported by many organisations, like RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the Royal Horticultural Society, and you can find even more information and advice available on their websites. Just search online for ‘wildlife gardening’.



Wildlife gardening, climate change and Watlington

The reason for publishing this article and others to follow on this subject, is because encouraging wildlife gardening in Watlington is one part of the proposed “Green Plan for Watlington”. This is being developed through a collaboration by organisations in the Town, including WCAG (Watlington Climate Action Group), WEG (Watlington Environment Group), the Watlington Neighbourhood Plan Group and Watlington in Bloom.

Climate change affects wildlife by changing habitats be it through more frequent and intense droughts, storms, flooding and heat waves, causing species to move away or adapt. Gardening for wildlife is a practical step people can take on land they have control over, whether it is a garden or a simple window box, to take to help mitigate these effects. Volunteering to help manage shared or publicly owned spaces in urban areas for wildlife is another.


Iain Naismith and Eliza Naismith


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