essential oils

Essential oils and honey bee health

essential oils

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

What is an essential oil?

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.

Using 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 use of an emulsifier keeps the oils in solution with water. This also helps the product mix easily with sugar syrup. Many beekeepers believe 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.

A vitamin pill for bees

In many ways, Honey-B-Healthy seems to act as a vitamin pill for bees. 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 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. When used as “vitamin pills,” essential oils in various concentrations may help in many ways. They may:

  • help control parasitic mites, both tracheal and Varroa
  • aid in the control of Nosema
  • aid in queen introduction
  • inhibit mold in sugar syrup
  • act as a lure in swarm traps
  • provide a feeding stimulant

Do not use too much

You can use 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!

Remember, however, to measure carefully and do not overdose. If some is good, more is probably not better.

Honey Bee Suite


  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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?

        • 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.

  • 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!

    • 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?

    • 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.

      • So I see this recipe for homemade HBH everywhere. However, I found the ingredients and percentages used in the original recipe and this homemade version differs. For one the oil mix in an 8 oz. cntnr of HBH is 156g of spearmint and 78.1g of lemongrass. In the home version, it’s equal parts. Usually 15 drops of each…

        Also in the original recipe 0.04oz. of Sodium Laurel Sulfate is used but never mentioned in the home version. I understand this is just a surfactant but could it have something to do with the mites ability to stay on the bee? Slick surface or maybe it attaches the HBH to the bee longer?

        And lecithin.

        The only thing missing info in the original formula is the amount of the carrier, H2O.

        Also confusing is 156g and 78.1g equals 8oz. So….where is the room for water, SLS and lecithin?

        I find the home recipe to be extremely diluted when compared to the original measurements of ingredients, especially when added to syrup.

        PLEASE Rusty, can you help me understand this from a scientists point of view?

        Thank you!!!!

        • Jeff,

          I’m interested to know where you got your info. You list grams of spearmint and lemongrass, but the number of grams would depend on the concentration of the solutions since essential oils are liquid.

          I don’t think the homebrew was ever supposed to imitate the commercial product exactly. Many thought it was an improvement since sodium laurel sulfate is reviled by so many biologists.

          If you don’t like the recipe or find it doesn’t work for you, just use the original. On the other hand, if people want to experiment, the recipe gives people a place to start.

    • 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; 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,

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

      • Donna,

        I don’t believe essential oils will control Nosema. The oils contain certain nutrients that may be good for overall bee health, and a healthy bee is better equipped to deal with pathogens. I equate it to taking a vitamin pill. But essential oils are not drugs or vaccines, so I believe they won’t damage Nosema spores. If you do use them, never go over a drop or two in a gallon of feed.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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,

      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.

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • … 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.

  • 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

    • 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.

  • 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

    • I am very Interested In learning about your knowledge and experience with essential oils, their quality and their relation to healthy beekeeping. Thank You Very Much

  • 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.

    • You are pushing multi level essential oils and that’s not cool I am trained herbalist and pure essential oils from the health food store are the best or from mountain rose herbs not young living or Doterra.

      You don’t know what you are getting with multi level marketing products such as these. Aura Cacia works fine and can’t be bought at health good stores.

  • Has anyone used a diffuser with essential oils to get rid of mites? Would it work without harming the bees? What essential oils would be best to diffuse into the hives?

    • Christy,

      I’m guessing here, but I think that a diffuser with essential oils would not hurt the bees or the mites.

  • Out of curiosity is it OK to substitute peppermint oil for spearmint oil in the essential oil recipe anyone know?

    • Natalie,

      I’m sure you can. but I don’t know if it will have the same effect because all the essential oils are composed of different chemicals in different proportions. If you are just using it as a feeding stimulant, peppermint works great, but I don’t know about its other properties.

      • Thanks! Love your website getting my first package of bees Monday and I’m super excited! I want to do things naturally and your website is my favorite.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have been referred back to you since I am a brand new beekeeper. I’ve had my bees for about 3 weeks now, and used your suggestion on using anise and lemongrass oils as an appetite stimulant in a 1:1 syrup. Bees went NUTS for it, except after some of them finished eating, I observed them falling to the ground off the table they are on. They would then start hopping and doing flips…it was like they were drunk off the syrup. Is that possible??? I took up the syrup yesterday morning, and the behavior seems to have stopped unless one of my poor girls is attacked by a fire bull ant that is trying to invade the hive. Then after the ant bites the bee’s abdomen, the poor bee will start rolling around, but not doing flips. Am very confused, would love to hear your particular thoughts on this matter with me.

    • Maura,

      I have never seen that, but I would caution you that essential oils are very strong and can be toxic at high concentrations. Start with just a couple drops per gallon of syrup. As for the ants, try to get rid of them. Ants can be very destructive to a colony.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I’ve used essential oils for several years and in doing some research on other things I’m finding a lot of people saying that essential oils kill/disrupt microorganisms in the hive which has a negative impact on the bees. I can understand the premise but I’m wondering about something and maybe you can help shed some light. I treat with essential oil in the syrup. This leads to several questions. Do bees spread EO from syrup everywhere somehow, or do they simply ingest it, and feed to between each other and the larva keeping it from contacting the majority of the hive except the brood cells?

    It was my thought that wintergreen was effective because it killed Varroa in the brood cells with the larva when the nurse bees mixed the syrup in with them for food. My other questions, is do you think EO might harm the bacteria/microorganisms in the honey crop of the bees? Could this have some unintended change to the honey (however slight)? I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.

    • Matt,

      I believe that to be effective against mites, the essential oils must be absorbed through the epidermis of the mite. I’m pretty sure wintergreen works that way: it gets on the bees who end up spreading it around the hive and some gets on the mites, which have a low tolerance for it. For mites and bees, it’s just a matter of which species can withstand higher concentrations. Wintergreen can harm humans in the same way and I’m sure it may injure and/or kill gut fauna. And no, wintergreen will not kill mites in the brood cells.

      I don’t really think essential oils in syrup do anything except add some microelectronics and antioxidants into the bee diet. The concentrations they can consume would not be great enough to harm a mite. By the way, larvae are not fed syrup by nurse bees. Larva are fed by secretions from the worker bees and, when they get a little older, they are fed bee bread which a combination of pollen and nectar. There’s never enough essential oil in any of this to harm a mite.

  • I put real live merigold flowers and leaves in a blender with my sugar water and essential oils and puree it then feed it to my bees. No pest left.

    • Michael,

      I can all but assure you that feeding pureed marigolds to your honey bees will not kill either mites or hive beetles. Where did you get this idea? Is there a peer-reviewed research paper you can link me to? What I am most concerned about it the possibility of the marigolds causing honey bee dysentery. Honey bees are not designed to eat plants, and the excess fiber and ash in plant material could easily cause digestive distress.

  • One of my new nucs wasn’t drawing new comb so I added Pro Health (I think it’s basically the same as Honey-B-Health) to the sugar water in the top jar feeder. I few hours later, there was chaos that I noticed all the way across the field. There were bees all over the hive and fighting going on everywhere. Shiny black robbers were everywhere. The guy I bought the nucs from said that the essential oils make it so that “the guard bees can’t sort out anybody coming in,” and that “often the whole hive is lost in the frenzy.” I think there was robbing going on already, and this just made it a lot worse, so it may have been helpful in this case because I realized I needed to close up the entrances, and that robbing was probably why the hive wasn’t growing even though their sugar was going down very fast. I also moved the entrances to the bottom and farther away from the feeders. He also said that this will make your honey extremely bitter! Pros and cons to everything! But I thought my experience might help someone.

    • Kim,

      1. Feeding stimulants such as Honey-B-Healthy or Pro Health have many legitimate uses, but they should never be provided during a nectar dearth as they will cause robbing, just as spilling honey can cause robbing.

      2. I don’t think your friend’s statement is quite accurate. If the bees couldn’t “sort out” who was coming in, they wouldn’t be fighting. The fact they are fighting proves they know very well who is trying to get in and they are working to prevent it.

      3. Whether Pro Health makes your honey “extremely bitter,” I have no idea. More important is the fact that it is not intended for human consumption. No supplements, including feeding stimulants or sugar syrup, should be giving to a colony of bees if honey supers intended for harvest are in place. No one wants to eat honey adulterated with essential oils or refined sugar, and selling it as honey is illegal.

  • I am trying to figure out the correct recipe for essential oil syrup. The above recipe is only for scented and or flavored syrup. The concentration of essential oils is so low that it would not harm anything at all. The LD50 of wintergreen is 500 ppm which if my math is correct would be 1.5 oz of oil per quart of ready to eat syrup. That is around 800 drops in a ready to feed syrup. I have also read that 1 cc per quart of ready to feed syrup, that is about 20 drops per quart. I can not find out what the concentration needs to be for it to be toxic to the varroa mites.

    If anyone has more info please respond to this post. I have made my own recipe of 4.5 teaspoons of each: wintergreen, spearmint and lemongrass oil into a quart of 1:1 sugar syrup. I would need to put just over 6 teaspoons per quart of this concentrate to even get close to 200 ppm. So more info if anyone has it.

    Thank You

    • Robert,

      When you say the LD50 of wintergreen is 500 ppm, are you referring to the LD50 for mites, honey bees, humans, or something else? Your numbers seem high.

  • Rusty,
    It does refer to honey bees. It came from this source
    Wintergreen oil orally to honey bees
    I am unable to find the LD50 for mites however.
    Then I did figure out my math was off by a full decimal point. So, that is why I was confused about the amounts. In my research I have seen the homemade concentrate recipes with 15 to 20 drops in a quart of concentrated syrup. Then putting 2 teaspoons HBH into a quart of ready to feed sugar syrup. And saying that it would deliver 1cc of each oil to the bees.
    But the HBH concentrate only has 15 drops of EO which is only 1cc of each oil. This is what prompted me to do my investigation into the whole thing.
    The LD50 of wintergreen oil is 500 ppm which is 0.48cc (ten drop) per quart of ready to feed syrup.

  • Rusty, I hope you answer your old blogs. I’m looking for a fall feed recipe to substitute for honey bee healthy. The recipe listed above sounds great. I’ve heard the complaints about dissolving the lecithin granules. Our local health food store carries a liquid lecithin. It is liquid sunflower lecithin, no soy and non-GMO. My question is would the amount be the same as for the granules? I love your site and use it as a reference frequently. I also give the address to new beekeepers. It would of been nice if Sheri had shared her special recipe, maybe later?

    • Brenda,

      Yes, liquid lecithin would work fine. I googled “substitute liquid lecithin for granules” and found this reference: “1 tsp liquid lecithin = 2 1/4 tsp lecithin granules.” It’s a place to start. Try it and see if it works.

  • Great! Thanks for your help. I was concerned that the liquid was not as compatible as the dry granules for the drink. Thanks again.

  • Rusty, I’m a brand new beekeeper in Manitoba. I bought Pro-Health Feeding Stimulant with Essential Oils a while ago, and recently (a week ago) accidentally fed it to the bees with the super on. Any advice on what to do would be much appreciated.

    • Jennifer,

      It sounds like they didn’t get much, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Also, you can look inside your honey super. It’s possible they didn’t store any as honey, or perhaps not much. You don’t want too much in the honey or you will begin to taste it, but it sounds like you caught in in time.

  • Rusty, can you provide me links to any scientific research on the use of EOs with bees. I stumbled across your website while researching Pro Health Ultra Bee pollen substitute. We are VERY particular about knowing the quality of EOs and my sister and brother-in-law raise bees in north TX and also use EOs for their family but hadn’t thought about using them for their bees. Any research or recipes that you have found helpful would be appreciated. 11-01-2017

  • Can aromatherapy EO harm bees? It is 100% pure but maybe not meant to be ingested. I lost two very strong hives, just trying to figure out why.
    Otherwise, I followed the directions for the HBH recipe.

    • Cheryl,

      The minute amounts in the recipe will not harm bees, and I doubt that aromatherapy grade had anything to do with it. My guess is your colonies died from something else.

  • Rusty,

    Are you aware of any research that has been conducted with honey bee healthy using an experimental and control group of the same starting size and all other parameters controlled as much as possible?

  • Thanks for all discussion& comment. It not the matter of only mites, but also the matter of health and growth of a colony to improve apiary health and growth. -G.C .Sarma

  • Rusty,

    I seem to remember that you said there is one brand of essential oils that you use and if requested you would pass the name (and perhaps where it can be found). I’m interested in giving them a try here in Wisconsin.

  • Hi,
    I have been looking for Lemongrass EO to add to the sugar water feeder but have only been able to purchase a Lemongrass/Ginger EO. Do you think this will be ok to use ?

    • I honestly don’t know about ginger, so I would keep looking for lemongrass. It’s usually not hard to find.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.