I have always shrugged off the idea of “bee tea” as ridiculous, a feel-good indulgence for beekeepers with too much time and money on their hands. The idea that bee health could be augmented by an infusion of things they never eat in nature—the leaves and flowers of various plants—is absurd.
Practitioners of this oddity must believe that if tea is good for them, tea is good for bees. But bees are not humans. Humans eat many different plant parts and our good health depends on them. But bees eat only pollen and nectar. They do not eat leaves, petals, roots, or stems. So chances are extremely high that said leaves, petals, roots, and stems do them no good whatsoever. I assume they do no harm, but who knows?
Normally, bees derive their nutrients from pollen, nectar, and dirty water. Dirty water–the type they prefer–is full of single-celled organisms, decomposing organic matter, and a wide range of minerals derived from the soil. This water surely contains plant parts, but which plants and how decomposed they are will vary widely. It is up to the bee to decide if she wants to drink it.
If you are not familiar with this trend, beekeepers make bee tea out of dried and crushed herbs and flowers. The most popular recipes include yarrow, chamomile, hyssop, lemon balm, nettle, and dandelion petals. Many beekeepers add Honey-B-Healthy or an equivalent mixture of lemongrass and spearmint oils along with syrup or honey. The additives are used to attract bees to the tea because, without a sweetener, a pan of soggy leaves in otherwise clean tap water holds little attraction for your average apid.
Up until now I figured “so what?” If a beekeeper gets a warm fuzzy glow from sharing a cuppa with his colonies, no harm done. A pan of infused water outside on a sunny day won’t hurt the bees—after all, they can take it or leave it.
But I find the newest twist disturbing: beekeepers are now using herbal infusions in place of water in candy boards and fondant. Unlike the take-it-or-leave-it situation of summer, mixing plant parts in winter feed forces your bees to ingest things the wouldn’t normally select. Eating by choice and eating by necessity are two different things. If we were starving to death, most of us would eat whatever we could find regardless of the dietary nuances. Your bees will do the same.
Furthermore, ash or fiber in the diet of summer bees is not overly stressful since they are out and about. But ash and fiber in a winter colony could very easily promote honey bee dysentery, something most of us try to prevent.
Bottom line, I believe there is a big difference between “free choice” feeding and sneaking greens into their food. Especially in the winter, save the herbal tea for yourself, feed the greens to your kids, and leave your bees alone.