Tea in the honey bee diet

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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

WesternWilson
Reply

I too have been somewhat uneasy with the bee tea practice…but lately two things have worked to make me go hmmmmm….

First, the conviction of beekeepers who insist they are certain the teas make a contribution to bee health. And second, the animosity (as opposed to healthy skepticism) aroused in official apiculturalists and bee scientists by things like bee teas, who then advise hewing to standard practice. This would be fine if the standard practices they offer were giving us treatment free bees and acceptable winter losses, but they are not. Until we get a fix on what is causing catastrophic bee losses, and in the absence of good science on things like bee teas, we need to be open to anecdote-based advice, we need to give it a good look in our own apiaries, we need to be open to new things, and thinking outside the box of standard practice.

Bill Castro
Reply

Good points, WW…the so called experts are often wrong on so many bee related subjects. They also will lecture us on why it’s okay to feed bees soy protein and raise queens on HFCS…and we wonder why queens and colonies won’t last a single season?

Rusty
Reply

The problem with anecdotal evidence is that you can’t separate correlation from causation. CO2 emissions correlate with climate change, but does it cause it? Nosema ceranae correlates with CCD, but does it cause it? Poor education correlates with violence, but does it cause it? Perhaps bee tea correlates with bee health, but does it cause it?

Bill Castro
Reply

Rusty,

Can we also lump HBH into this? I will also be bold and say I also believe that treatments of all kinds are also just a feel good for beekeepers. The sooner nature is returned to a place where chemicals are not used, we will see a better planet where animals and bees will thrive once again.

Thanks for this thought provoking article.

Vbateman
Reply

So sad.
No one knows how honey bees will do without us. But we do know a very few things. Feeding them sugar in the winter is good. And feeding them pollen in the spring so they can have babies is good.

M.S. Patterson
Reply

Many of the plants on your list are known to contain phytochemicals that actively promote wound healing in humans, or are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and so forth.

Of course, bees are pretty far removed from mammals, but some of their inflammatory or other metabolic pathways may still be similar, given the rather conservative nature of basic metabolism, from an evolutionary perspective.

So it is plausible, at least, that ingesting the extracts of some herbs may benefit bees, just as they have been beneficial to humans for many thousands of years. The obvious thing to do is to conduct some basic experiments with single herb extracts as the only variable (to the extent that any two hives can be “identical”) and try to collect some real data.

Rusty
Reply

M.S.

I agree with what you are saying but maintain it is not our place to “force feed” bees by putting decoctions in their winter feed when they have little, if any, choice about consuming it. If people want to provide “free choice” tea to their bees such that the bees can decide whether to consume it, that is completely different. Remember that the first bees evolved millions of years before humans with teapots, so I don’t think it is our place to decide for them which plants they should eat.

The issue here isn’t whether some plant extracts are good for bees; I have no doubt there are many. But since we don’t know the particulars involved, we shouldn’t act as if we know what is best for them.

M.S. Patterson
Reply

I find this response a little peculiar, Rusty.

How is it possible to determine what plants may be helpful without “forcing” their consumption on a hive?

At some point people didn’t know what the best treatment for varroa might be, and they forced their bees to be exposed to a whole mess of treatments until it was discovered what was more or less successful.

Your bees would not choose to be exposed to the compounds that help control varroa in the hive, just as they did not choose to be imported into North America, or many of the other details of their existence. It is plausible that given the choice between a ‘bee tea’ that contains compounds that will improve their health, and funky water containing pesticide compounds that will kill them, the bees would choose the funky water! Many animals will cheerfully consume poisons or avoid consuming substances that would cure them of sickness; a dog will eat chocolate, and a child will refuse bitter medicine.

You are certainly correct that just chucking a bunch of stuff in the pot to make syrup and hoping for the best is probably unwise, and even has the potential to be harmful.

But in the age of CCD I find it hard to frown upon experimentation to gather knowledge that might improve the health of honey bee populations, regardless of whether or not that means forcing things on the bees in question.

Rusty
Reply

M.S.

I make the mistake of believing regular readers know how I think, which of course is ridiculous. For the record, I am a firm believer in the scientific method, controlled experimentation, and statistical evaluation of results. If someone is doing those kinds of inquiries into bee tea, I’m all for it. That is exactly what should be done. But making a witches brew of herbs and feeding them to bees with no stated hypothesis, no measurement, no control group, no replications, nor any other of the other trappings of science does not an experiment make.

Furthermore, I was trying to make the point that unless we know for sure what we are doing, we shouldn’t be risking honey bee dysentery or other ailments by forcing bees to eat an unknown. When I use the term “we” I’m not referring to researchers, but ordinary beekeepers like me. My website is designed for ordinary beekeepers, not research scientists, so I don’t expect them to be reading.

If you are a honey bee researcher, than I apologize for lumping you into the readership.

Sheila Retherford
Reply

Anecdotal: I have a spring photo of my bees “working” a bag of potting soil which had mineral additives. Plant fibers are not part of honey bee diet, but minerals seem to be.

Dave
Reply

I am also rather sceptical about the efficacy of bee teas, and would never consider putting any such inside a hive, but one simple observation suggests that they may provide foragers with something that we don’t fully understand. Conventional wisdom says that bees only gather nectar, pollen, resin gums and water from the environment but look at their choices when it comes to water sources. I have seen bees collect water from damp soil, anaerobic compost, aged horse dung and rotting pondweed. In some cases they spend time searching over such sources before settling in one spot to drink. I believe that they are sampling the qualities of the water until they find one to their liking. Something dissolved in the water must be supplying a mineral or micronutrient requirement, and teas may do the same. Provided they are always offered in such a way that bees can ignore them, I don’t see that they can doo any harm.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

You illustrate my point right here: “In some cases they spend time searching over such sources before settling in one spot to drink.” The searching suggests they are rejecting some and selecting some. Until we know what is good and bad for them, we are not the ones who should decide. As I say in the post, free choice is fine, force feeding is wrong.

Also, please read “Love that Dirty Water.”

Lindy Lou van der Meulen
Reply

Hello readers of HoneyBeeSuite,
I do make bee tea and not because I have too much time or too much money. I thought the reaction this time was not carefully thought about by you Rusty or some of the people who answered this post. Bees are excellent pharmacists and do know very well what is good for them. When a hive is placed in a virtually sole crop of something they will always try to find some other flowering plant so that their mineral intake is as divers as they can possibly make it. Calling the bee tea a pan of water with soggy leaves is rather crude. It doesn’t work like that. Juliette de Bairacli Levy thought up the recipe I use. Most people know her as a sound advocate of animal care. Basically it is that instead of using tap water for making the winter syrup, you make a herbal tea using nettles, sage, rosehips and apple cores. According to Juliette de Bairacli these last two ingredients prevent scouring. I don’t use the other ingredients Rusty writes in her tekst above. When this has simmered for 10 minutes with lid on the pan you cool it down to 60 degrees Celsius using 1/3 again of the total amount of ‘tea’ you have simmered using apple cider vinegar. You sieve it carefully and then you stir in the honey if you have the right type available! or white table sugar if you don’t until it is the right 2 to 1 consistency. My bees drink this stuff like there is no tomorrow and I see no harm in it. Most bee keepers here where I live just provide their bees with refined granulated table sugar and water syrup. I consider that rather more mean. I don’t just mean that economically speaking but also as a paucity after them providing the beekeeper with their superb product and what they get in return is destitute of minerals and goodness it is just sweet that is all! It may be an unrisky method and it will perhaps keep them going throughout the winter until they can feed themselves again but it does not have any elements and minerals in it as their own product does. If and when my bees are able to provide enough honey for themselves I will not make the bee tea syrup this way again I do not harvest their honey. However,I lost my two hives in the long winter of last year; so the new colonies of this year where not thoroughly established when winter started this year. Until they are strong enough I try with my bee tea method my best to give them as good an alternative to their own choice as I can. Perhaps this throws another light on the subject. Thank you for taking time to read it. Lindy

Rusty
Reply

Lindy,

I would not be a bit surprised if your two colonies died last year due to honey bee dysentery. Apple juice is a known cause of it.

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