Inside: It’s a mystery why people can’t decide if bees like mint-family plants or not.
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While surfing my news feed one day, I saw an article about how to use peppermint to keep bees away from your yard. Peppermint? They were kidding, right?
But no. Once I started searching for things like “how to repel bees” and “how to keep bees away from me,” I found dozens—more like hundreds—of references about using peppermint plants or peppermint oil to keep bees away. According to many articles, spearmint (a close relative of peppermint) works just as well because both are “natural bee deterrents.” Several authors suggested dabbing the oil on yourself like perfume.
My way-back peppermint experiment
One autumn day when I was young and naive about such things, I did an experiment to see which essential oils would make the best bee attractant. I wanted something to attract honey bees to their sugar syrup feeders because sometimes it seemed like they had trouble finding them.
I had many hives at the time, so I set up four buckets with sugar syrup and spaced them about fifty feet from each other. Each bucket received a few drops of a different essential oil: peppermint, anise, tea tree, and wintergreen. Then I just waited. We were in the midst of a nectar death, so I figured it wouldn’t take long. It didn’t. By the end of the day, all the buckets were empty.
The hands-down winner was anise oil. It seemed like all the bees went there first and scraped the bottom clean before moving on to—wait for it—peppermint! When the peppermint was gone, the bees split up, going about equally to tea tree and wintergreen.
Since then, I’ve used a drop of anise oil for sugar feeders if I have some. If not, I use peppermint and it seems to work just as well. Does that sound like a “natural bee repellent”?
Honey-B-Healthy contains what?
The product Honey-B-Healthy is designed as a feeding stimulant for honey bee colonies. It is a safe and effective mixture that many beekeepers wouldn’t be without. It’s based on two essential oils: lemongrass and spearmint.
I have used Honey-B-Healthy as have many other beekeepers because it seems to help bees not only find their syrup but also store it. My question is, “Why would it work for thousands of beekeepers if spearmint is a ‘natural bee repellent’”?
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Candy canes for wayward bees
Several years ago there was hoopla in Utah over a beekeeper who was open-feeding candy canes to his honey bees. He just put the red peppermint sticks outside near his apiary and let the bees decide if they wanted them or not. Guess what? They just couldn’t get enough of that great peppermint flavor. A problem arose later when local beekeepers began finding “red honey” in their hives. That’s a separate issue, but does peppermint sound like a “natural bee repellent?”
After the holidays, I had some red peppermint candies that I decided to try on my bees, just to see what they would do. I put them outside on their landing board on the first balmy day of spring. When I went to check, I couldn’t see the candies beneath the ball of bees.
Where does the nonsense come from?
So, what I’ve found by reading all this nonsense on the internet is that most beekeepers know that honey bees love peppermint and spearmint. The advice about planting it in your garden or dabbing it on your neck to repel bees comes from people who know nothing about bees, but don’t have any qualms about giving advice about what bees like or don’t like. There are, however, those who claim to be beekeepers who give the same peppermint advice, so be careful who you listen to.
I did some digging and learned that some insects do, indeed, dislike mint-family plants. These may include ants, spiders, aphids, beetles, caterpillars, flies, and fleas. However, I refuse to verify any of this because the University of California lists pests of peppermint and includes aphids, leafhoppers, spider mites, some caterpillars, root borers, and thrips.
Another theory for the misinformation about peppermint may arise from the idea that overly fragrant plants, such as citronella, repel insects. In any case, the peppermint-as-a-bee-repellant advice seems to be the result of someone writing about something they don’t understand and everyone else copying it. Then, after dozens of bloggers have repeated it, you think, “Everybody says it, so it must be right.”
A pollination syndrome that attracts bees and flies
A pollination syndrome is a group of characteristics that a plant has evolved in order to attract its most effective pollinators. The mint family of plants has certain markers that shout, “Come on over!” to all the bees in the neighborhood.
For example, peppermint has light-colored flowers with scent, nectar, and pollen. The flowers are the right size and shape for bees to feed on and they bloom at a time when bees are actively seeking pollen. Wasps and flower flies are also attracted.
According to 100 Plants to Feed the Bees by the Xerces Society, peppermint (Mentha x piperita) along with spearmint (M. spicata) are great bee plants. Regarding peppermint, it says, “Surplus honey production approaching 200 pounds per colony has been documented near commercial mint fields. The honey is amber in color and easily granulates with very small crystals.”
Xerces doesn’t give a link, so I don’t know the source of this information. Other references say that honey crops from peppermint are unusual, but the scent of the peppermint fields can attract bees to other nearby crops that have better nectar yields.
If you want to stay clear of bees
My advice to those who want to stay clear of the bees is simple: Do not plant mint family plants and do not wear mint oil like perfume. It will only make things worse.
Honey Bee Suite