Essential oils and honey bee health

The role that essential oils play in the life of a honey bee colony is complex, fascinating, and not well understood. Beekeepers are just beginning to grasp the potential that these oils may have, and recently a host of scientific papers have delved into various aspects of their chemistry.

According to one paper, “essential oil” is a general term for “liquid, highly volatile plant compounds, characterized by an intensive, characteristic odor” (Imdorf et al. 1999). The essential oils that most people are familiar with are the ones used in food, cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products. These include the oils of lavender, peppermint, pine, clove, spearmint, and citrus. Each oil comprises dozens—sometimes hundreds—of plant chemicals, and it turns out that many of these play an important role in bee health.

The use of essential oils as a feeding supplement first became popular with the manufacture of a commercial mix of spearmint and lemongrass oils called Honey-B-Healthy. The oils are kept in solution with water by the use of an emulsifier so that the product mixes easily with sugar syrup. My personal opinion is that Honey-B-Healthy was a stroke of genius. There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that the use of Honey-B-Healthy increases overall colony health, and helps bees deal with stress, pathogens, and parasites.

In many ways Honey-B-Healthy seems to act like a vitamin pill for bees—all the phytochemicals in the two oils appear to make up for things that are lacking in the bee’s diet. This is especially important where a naturally varied diet is missing, as is the case on much of our farmland.

After writing a research paper on essential oils and Varroa control, I began experimenting on my own with oils such as tea tree, patchouli, anise, rosemary, and orange. My populations expanded quickly and my bees never seemed healthier. Besides being used as “vitamin pills,” essential oils in various concentrations may be used for many purposes, such as:

  • the control of parasitic mites, both tracheal and Varroa
  • an aid in the control of Nosema
  • an aid in queen introduction
  • a mold inhibitor in sugar syrup
  • a lure in swarm traps
  • a feeding stimulant

For the beginning beekeeper, I would suggest using Honey-B-Healthy in both your spring and fall syrups. Although it is expensive, it seems to increase both the size and health of most colonies. And just for the record, I have no financial interest in Honey-B-Healthy, although I wish I did!

Rusty

Comments

kathy
Reply

in what measure would you add essential oils, let’s say to 1 gallon of winter feed?

Rusty
Reply

Kathy,

I add about 1/8 tsp of each essential oil to a gallon of syrup. So if I’m using two oils, say spearmint and lemongrass, I use 1/8 tsp each. This is approximate. Some people use less, some use more. The syrup should smell nice but it shouldn’t knock you over.

Jeff
Reply

Rusty,

Since this post has there been any scientific papers released regarding the use of essential oils? I am curious about using it in swarm traps and as a aid for queen introduction.

Rusty
Reply

I’m sure there has been, but I haven’t looked in a while. I know you don’t have Varroa mites where you are, but you might want to read my paper, Essential-Oils-and-Organic-Acids-for-the-Control-of-Varroa-Mites-in-Honey-Bees, to get a better general understanding of essential oils. They seem to go in and out of popularity among beekeepers. Some years they are the saviors, some years no one seems to care. Personally, I think they are a largely untapped resource.

I came across the anise oil thing just by experimenting with different oils that I heard bees might like. One summer I tried eight different oils in small open feeders, and anise oil was by far the most attractive. The last two years I’ve added it to the pollen patties I give in the spring, and I swear (nothing scientific) that they build up better and faster.

Jeff
Reply

Interesting, never thought about adding it to a pollen patty but what I have seen with syrup feeding I believe it would encourage intake.

I’ve downloaded the article and plan to read it after lunch.

Phillip
Reply

I’ve been adding anise extract to my homemade pollen patties all year for my nucs. The bees dig into the patties like they’re made of crack. And please, plumbers and electricians everywhere, I implore you, say no to crack. Good night everybody!

Rusty
Reply

You feeling okay, Phillip?

Sarah
Reply

Are there any essential oils that are toxic to or deter bees?

Rusty
Reply

I’m sure there are many. I’ve experimented with quite a few, but I’m pretty careful to give only small amounts to a single hive when I’m starting. Also, I do a lot of research first to see if anyone has recorded any positive or negative results with any insects or arachnids.

Dave
Reply

Has anyone tried pine oil?

Dave
Reply

Twenty-five years ago I had a yard on a farm that made maple syrup.
My bees loved to clean up the syrup. I didn’t see any health problems.
I’ve heard not to use brown sugar but never heard anything about maple syrup.
I’m getting back into beekeeping and would like to hear any thoughts.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I don’t know how valuable a thought this is, but here’s how I see it. When bees are foraging for themselves they find things they like and take them home to the hive. There it is mixed with many other things that were also brought into the hive. This mix is equivalent to the “varied” diet that is so important to most creatures. In other words, no harm done and it’s probably beneficial. But when we feed bees it’s usually because they can’t get out or because there are no readily available food sources. The bees are more or less forced to eat it. In that case, you want the best possible food and one that won’t cause dysentery, etc. Because it’s the only food, it has to be the right food. But I think that bees cleaning up syrup at their own discretion is no problem.

Dave
Reply

Is anyone selling wax foundation with a % of propolis in the wax?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

I have not heard of it. Anyone else?

Dave
Reply

I read a report from the University of Minnesota on propolis vs
mites and it sounded good. My thought was to pin point propolis. Using it in a wax or oil form. Is that crazy?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

When it comes to experimentation with mites, nothing is crazy. We are so far from a good control mechanism that it’s a wonder we have any honey bees left at all. Go for it.

Halley
Reply

So when do you start using the Honey-B-Healthy? Our package of bees were put in the hive the 1st of May. I have been feeding sugar syrup all along. We had frosts all the way thru the middle of June (eastern WA state). Do you add it to the sugar syrup? When do you add it?

Our bees are still taking the sugar syrup but are also very busy bringing in the nectar and pollen. I added their second hive body about a week and 1/2 ago. I checked on it and they were drawing out comb. Also I don’t plan to take any honey this year. I want them to have all they need to make it thru our cold winter/first year.

If I don’t take the honey (out of the supers) can I just continue to feed them if they continue to take the syrup? Our summers in July and August become very hot and dry (typically) so I wonder about drought and dearth. Thanks for any tips!

Rusty
Reply

Halley,

I add HBH to sugar syrup in the late fall or early spring. It is a feeding stimulant; in other words, it encourages the bees to take syrup because it tastes and smells good to them. In addition, the essential oils add nutrients to their diet which are also good for them. However, when they have fresh nectar they don’t need the supplement—they get plenty of nutrients on their own. It certainly won’t hurt them but they just don’t need it in the spring and summer.

As for how long to feed a first year colony see “How long should I feed a new package of bees?

froutan
Reply

What kind emulsifier can be used?
And how much?

Rusty
Reply

The most common emulsifier used in these preparations is lecithin. I don’t know how much, or how to combine it. I’ve tried different amounts but I believe the secret is in how it’s processed.

Sheri C.
Reply

Yes sure I will share ~ As for the emulsifier part, I used;
“Full Circle” (brand) IPP Non-GMO Soy Lecithin Graduals. You can find it here; http://www.fullcircle.com This is also gluten free. And also listed for Vegans. ;)

Naomi came up with a better method than I had which was to slowly heat the graduals in the sugar water before adding the EO’s. This is a GRUELING process. Instead she took them and grind them up into a powder like in a coffee grinder then they seem to do a better job when added to the mix.

So for homemade ….

“Honey Bee Healthy”
~5 cups of water
~2.5 lbs of cane sugar (2 cups of sugar= 1 lb of sugar)
~For a one to one ratio you would use the same amount of water as sugar used.
~1/8 teaspoon soy lecithin graduals
~15 drops of spearmint YLEO
~15 drops of lemongrass YLEO

Bring water to about 110* and integrate sugar into the waster until dissolved. Not cloudy. Once the sugar is dissolved, turn off heat and add the ground up soy lecithin and stir. Since it is ground, it will be easier to melt and blend into the sugar water. It may take awhile. Try to mash up against the pan. When it cools down a bit after melting the lecithin, then add your essential oils. If you add them while sugar water is to hot, they will evaporate. So once you add your oils pour this into an air tight container and store in fridge. This will be your concentrate base. Use 1-2 teaspoons per quart of sugar water.

NOTE: You will want to maybe mix your honey bee healthy with your sugar water ratio that you are mixing in the house. Cause the bees go nuts over the lemon-grass. And if you drip on ground or get sloppy with mixture, it WILL encourage robbing. At least this is what I have found to be true when I got a bit sloppy and spilled.

Dave
Reply

Has anyone added a small amount of malt syrup to the cane syrup for the amino acids and minerals?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

Never heard of it. I’m guessing that malt syrup, like molasses, is high in ash and could probably cause honey bee dysentery.

froutan
Reply

Do essential oils really work or not?

Rusty
Reply

Essential oils are very effective for some things; it depends on what you are trying to do.

froutan
Reply

Quick treatment for Nosema how much essential oils used?
And treatment should be continued for a few days?

Rusty
Reply

Different studies have reported different results. In some experiments, essential oils appeared to keep down the Nosema spore count, but in others they didn’t. However, too much essential oil can be toxic to bees, so the amounts and times have to be carefully monitored. How much to use depends on who you talk to. I don’t have a recommendation.

froutan
Reply

How much you’re using and what kind do you use Essential Oils
Please explain the procedure?

Rusty
Reply

The type of essential oil and the amount would depend on what you are trying to do.

Robert
Reply

Do you think anise would attract bees to a trap?

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

I don’t think it would attract a swarm, but it definitely attracts them to sugar water. You could always give it a try.

The Lazy Drone
Reply

Regarding an emulsifier, honey is a natural emulsifier. I usually put about a teaspoon per qt of sugar syrup. Then add a couple of drops of lemongrass and sometimes a drop of peppermint oil (one side note, ants dislike lemongrass and mint oils, so this also helps to keep them away).

Interesting point regarding anise. Which makes sense considering the bees love anise hyssop flowers.

I’ve had success at catching swarms using a lure made out of lemongrass oil and beeswax. I believe the scent it very similar to the queen pheromone.

I believe almond oil repels bees. Its the main ingredient used in some of the products that are put on fume boards when getting bees out of supers for harvesting. Not sure why though…

mahwish
Reply

Hi. I’m little bit confuse how to apply different essential oils in honey bee colonies against varroa mite? Please help me out because my phd study based on this topic. I will be waiting. Thanks.

Linda
Reply

Must the essential oil be food grade?

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

I use food grade, but I don’t think it is necessary as long as there in nothing added to the oils that could be toxic. Check the label carefully. If it is 100% pure, I think it would be fine.

Stephanie
Reply

Do you know how to best feed the bees EOs when the nighttime temps reach below 50? Should I stick with adding it to a fondant and if so, do you have a recipe handy?

Thank you, Rusty!

Rusty
Reply

Stephanie,

No, I don’t have a recipe. I usually just sprinkle a few drops on top of the fondant so the bees can find it.

Stephanie
Reply

… sorry, I should have also specified my intention… I want to feed them EOs preventatively for nosema and to increase their bee health before the winter completely settles in.

Tamara
Reply

How much Honey Bee Healthy would you add say to just granulated sugar or to a simple sugar patty for winter feeding? I am trying to keep things simple and would like to skip using syrup, but can’t find good measurements for use like this. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Tamara,

I do not have a recipe. I just sprinkle a few drops on top of the granulated sugar to help the bees find it, but I don’t measure.

Sheri C.
Reply

Hello! Great article, well done! Thank you so much for all that you do and the info that you provide.

Naomi, Larry and Richard are my mentors here in Prineville. They are great folks and very dedicated to what they do. With that being said, I would like to add to the EO conversation.

One thing that needs to be said here IMHO, is that you don’t want to use just any ordinary essential oil. They are NOT all created equal. You want to use a HIGH therapeutic grade of PURE EO’s. I personally use one particular brand that is of high quality and would NOT trust any other brand (contact me if interested). I use with my bees and my family as well for our health and well bing.

To answer someone’s question above about toxic oils to bees. That would be “Wintergreen” for sure, so you would want to use spearmint instead. Naomi & I as well as The Hive Man and two others in our group have used these oils on our hives this year and had EXCELLENT results. My mite count was VERY low (not worth counting) after the application of the essential oil recipe that we/I used. I am sure that there are others that are toxic as they are tiny compared to a human and the constituents that they possess. They are VERY strong – one drop is VERY powerful by it’s self.

As far as using an EO for attracting the bees or even a swarm for that matter, I personally have used Lemongrass oil. they LOVE this.

I have a recipe also that I have used instead of Honey Bee Healthy. This way “I” control the ingredients the quality of them also. It has worked wonderfully and my bees were VERY healthy and it is cost effective IMHO. Well for the backyard bee keeper. Maybe not so much the commercial bee keeper. I don’t use any chemicals on my bee or my hive.

As I am a first year bee keeper and have learned soooo much from Naomi and Larry as well as Richard, it will be interesting to see how my hive comes out of this winter. All though I have lost one hive (not due to this) I hope to have at least one hive by spring. Oh did I mention that I also have a feral hive? Well, a TREE hive anyways. “Medusa”! She is the reason that I got into bee keeping in the first place wel, plus the idea swimming around in my head knowing that I had a tree hive and my sister becoming a bee keeper the year before. Now my dad is keeping bees too. Heck, it seems to be a family affair. Although they are the west side of the state, it is interesting to see how techniques and honey varies from place to place.

The spring of 2014 (we moved here in Dec 2013), she swarmed a total of 4 times by the time swarming season was over. So, I had gifted two swarms to two other folks from the Prineville area. I was no where near ready nor prepared for keeping bees, let alone that many that fast. So I am thankful for the new friends that I have acquired through Medusa. Cause without the help, dedication, knowledge and teaching of my mentors mentioned above, I would not be where I am today; A Bee Keeper tiring to do my part to save the bees as well as coming to love our pollinators at the same time. Which I never thought possible. So, with that said, thank you Larry Naomi and Richard for ALL that you do to help our pollinators and other humans to learn and educate about how important they are to humanity.

Many Blessings to all,

~ Sheri

Rusty
Reply

Sheri,

Now that you have us all wondering, are you willing to share your EO recipes with us?

Sheri C.
Reply

I also want to mention that you want more quality than food grade and your health food stores are NOT always going to carry a high quality and you want “Unadulterated” you don’t want oils with fillers or additives. There is more to meet the eye when you are talkin essential oils. There are a lot of companies out there however when I speak of them I am only talkin and endorsing one brand. Therapeutic grade is the only grade that I will use. It is a matter of doing your research IMHO.

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