Best Ways to Use Essential Oils for Honey Bees
Using essential oils in beekeeping has become a very popular way to promote healthier colonies. While these products are not a cure for the issues facing our colonies, many people believe they can be a positive influence However, the use of anything in the hive should be done with caution. Can the use of an essential oil help your honey bees?
Essential Oils May Improve Honey Bee Health
Honey bee colonies live in the natural world and are exposed to numerous pests, pesticide etc. We all want to have healthy bee colonies.
And these winged pollinators have some pretty good systems in place to take care of themselves. They have been doing okay for a very long time.
However, our bees have been exposed to increasing pressures from environmental issues and new pests and diseases in recent years.
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As bee health declines, we see a desire for more natural methods of keeping bees. Interest continues to grow in the use of natural compounds instead of synthetic chemicals.
Varroa Mite Infestations Result in Poor Colony Health
I always tell the students in my online beekeeping class that controlling varroa is one of the most important keys to beekeeping success.
Using the conventional method of varroa mite treatments is the first step but you can explore other options too. However, always check to make sure they are safe and effective.
Is using essential oils for mite control a sound- more natural option to hard chemicals? Maybe. But this is only true if the treatment has a good efficacy (meaning it works) and does no other harm to the colony.
We do know that colonies with high loads of varroa mites do not thrive. And, unhealthy colonies are much more susceptible to viruses and other problems.
Of course, it is not just mites that take a toll on our bees. Environmental changes and contamination contribute to poor hive health.
This is not a good environment for developing young bees who are subject to an ever reducing varied diet. A bee colony in poor health is more likely to fail.
Beekeepers are devastated emotionally and financially as they watch colony after colony perish from mites and related health issues.
In desperation, some try non-approved methods. Some of these are great ideas that are ahead of their time and some can end in disaster.
Are Essential Oils Safe for Hive Use?
In the struggle to keep hive healthy, the idea of using natural oils in your beekeeping program is appealing. They are natural products so we should have few worries, right?
Not exactly, even though these oils are natural products-that does not mean they should be used “willy nilly”. They are powerful compounds and can do great harm when used in the wrong way.
The use of essential oils as a food supplement for honey bees is common in the beekeeping world.
However, some of the methods of application and many of the oils are not legally approved for use in beehives.
Then why do beekeepers use them? Because the bees are sick and beekeepers want to save them. And to often, they try it because someone suggested it.
In the past, most of the approved mite treatments contained toxic substances that accumulate in the wax and honey of the beehive. These are still around but new alternatives are coming on the market.
Benefits of Essential Oils Use in Beekeeping
- help in the control of tracheal mites (a lesser mite problem)
- possible varroa mite reduction
- help prevent nosema (an intestinal disease)
- aid in new queen introduction
- use as a swarm lure
- keep syrup from becoming moldy.
The most popular oils used in beekeeping are : Thyme Oil, Spearmint Oil and Lemongrass Oil. Some sources recommend Wintergreen Oil, and Tea Tree Oil as well.
Thyme Oil contains thymol. It assists in control of varroa mites a major killer of honey bee colonies worldwide.
The fumes confuse mites and block their breathing pores. Thymol is also active against fungus and somewhat effective in control of tracheal mites.
Spearmint Oil works in the same way as thyme. It masks the normal scent of the bees (making them harder for mites to locate). It does not mimic or interfere with normal colony pheromones.
These important pheromones control activities inside the hive. We do not want to add anything that will greatly disrupt normal colony life.
Lemongrass Oil for Bees
Lemongrass Essential Oil – The most popular oil used for honey bees is Lemongrass. It is used as a treatment for pests, a supplement for health boost or as a bait to lure honeybee swarms to traps.
Lemongrass is anti-fungal, anti-viral and antibacterial. It does mimic some common honey bee pheromones. Be careful when using any lemongrass product with weak hives.
The scent may attract robber bees from stronger hives. The weaker colony may not have enough bees to protect themselves resulting in loss of the hive.
Other Bee Feeding Supplements
If you don’t have the time to make your own essential oil recipes for your bees, you do have a few options that are ready to use.
“Honey B Healthy” (HBH) is a popular supplement for improving honey bee colony health. It is a proprietary blend containing essential oils and other ingredients. A small amount of HBH added to sugar water serves as a nutritional boost.
Many beekeepers use a 1:1 sugar water mixture to stimulate brood rearing. This supplement helps keep the syrup fresh.
I have used it for years and cannot say enough good things about the product. You will always find a bottle of Honey B Healthy in my equipment shed.
Another popular brand of feed supplement using oils is Pro-Health from Mann Lake. It is used in the same way as Honey B Healthy.
These products are often added to sugar water, mixed into pollen patties and added to sugar water for spraying directly on the bees.
Other choices include:
Tips for Making Your Own Essential Oil Mixture
Most recipes will include a sugar water component. It is a well known fact that water and oil doesn’t mix easily.
Getting your oils to disperse well in sugar water is made easier by the use of Lecithin Powder. This powder eases the mixing of your products and does no harm to the bees. Only a small amount is needed so it lasts a long time. You may see it advertised as lecithin granules.
How to Use Essential Oils in the Beehive
The most common method of application is mixing the oil recipe into sugar syrup. This is then fed to the bees.
Be careful when using them in bee sugar water. Follow recipes, measure carefully. Essential oils are powerful stuff ! I know I am saying this a lot but it is very important to remember.
Many beekeepers spray the mixture (mixed with sugar water) directly on the honey bees. Do this with caution! -don’t chill the bees or spray directly into the cells. I would encourage beginner beekeepers to not spray but feed instead.
Pollen Patties With Essential Oils
When used properly, pollen patties that already contain essential oils can be a good choice for the beekeeper.
It is important to keep in mind that pollen patties must be used with EXTREME care in regions that have Small Hive Beetles. They can destroy a colony in a short time. Most beekeepers that suffer from them use Small Hive Beetle traps.
You can make your own protein pollen patties. They can be frozen and used as needed. When to use them and how much to use will depend on your location.
Popular Beekeeping Essential Oil Recipes
Recipe #1 Bee Health Boost
- 2 ½ cups water
- 2 ½ cups sugar (pure cane)
- 1/16 teaspoon of lecithin
- 8 drops of Spearmint Oil
- 8 drops of Lemongrass Oil
** Blend well – always shake before use – Use 2 tsp of this concentrate to a quart of sugar water feed
Recipe # 2 Health Boost
- water – 1 Cup
- 1 tsp tea tree oil
- Use 1 tsp lemongrass oil
- 1 tsp spearmint oil (or wintergreen)
Blend thoroughly in a blender (5 min). Pour into ½ gallon jug and add enough water to make 2 quarts.
Do NOT heat the essential oils. This will make a concentrate. Use 1 cup of concentrate to 1 gallon of cool syrup.
Grease Patties and Essential Oils
Grease patties are not as popular as they once were but some beekeepers still use them. A mix of crisco and sugar -they were originally used to combat tracheal mites.
The addition of essential oils “may” provide some varroa control. Grease patties can be used on hives most of the year. But, they sure are a mess in hot weather! Therefore, the beekeepers who still use them do so mostly in the Winter.
They should not be used when collecting honey for human consumption. In addition to being messy, patties too may cause problems with honey bee pests.
When trying natural oils in beekeeping, use VERY small amounts – most folks add too much product. Proceed with caution.
We do not have solid evidence that the use of essential oils will handle varroa mite issues. But, they may aid bee health in other ways that helps promote productive hives.
If you decide to try using essential oils in your hives, do your research first and don’t trust the opinion of only one source. (Not even if it is me.. LOL)
Monitor your hives and if necessary consider some of the other softer treatments such as oxalic acid or formic acid. Both work well in certain situations.
Peppermint oil has a scent that bees do not prefer. It is sometimes used to discourage bees from an area. It should not harm bees as long as it is used in a diluted form.
The most common method of using essential oils in beekeeping is to add them to food. Sugar water formulas and pollen patties are good examples. In some recipes, bees are lightly sprayed with a essential oil mixture – but this must be done with care.
When used in the proper strength and application many oils promote good bee health. But, even natural essential oils can be toxic to bees and other insects.
I put lemongrass oil in one of my bee waterers. The bees stopped using it. Did I do something wrong?
Perhaps you put too much Claire, bees have very sensitive noses. ( Hmm .. maybe I should say they have great olfactory senses).
When you use oxalis acid do you close the hive up completely.
I do for just a few minutes.
Do u ever use Pro Health in your sugar cakes?
I have not Rick but just because I’ve always had access to Honey B Healthy. Pro Health seems to be a similar product and I would expect it to work about the same.
Thanks learnt a lot.
Any advise on how to use essential oils to keep a small new colony from absconding?
“These important pheromones control activates inside the hive.” Do you mean”activities”?
How often should I refresh the lemon grass oil in a swarm trap? I plan to put a few drops on a wick in a partially open zip lock bag.
I’m not sure any essential oil would encourage bees to not leave a hive. Even though using too much of some mite make them leave! LOL Yes thanks.
I think it would depend somewhat on the weather and temperature. Weekly perhaps.
thanks for the info,
need help to keep hives alive.!!!/
this late winter 2018 March,
4 of 5 are dead sense last summer.?
I have gotten bee nukes
from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm
they often sworm 1 or more times before summer,
even through there may be 3 honey suppers above 2 deep brood boxes.?
I need help keeping Bee hives alive !
now , retired,
Dan the Honey Man
Keeping bees alive is certainly not as easy as it once was. Bees do swarm. It is natural even though is it not always best for beekeepers. Finding a way to control varroa that works and keeping good queens in you hives is a must.
Love your blog! Question re: #2 herbal health boost with tea tree, lemongrass, speaking oils: is this a sugar water spray like recipe #1? I’m a new-bee, so my apologies if this is a silly question.
Thank you Barbara. No serious questions is silly. You sure could spray a lite mist of this recipe on the bees during inspection. However, in general I think it best to feed it to them.
recently I have been working with a hive that is very weak after coming out of winter. they had plenty of honey,,but a lot of the bees died. I have tried putting in a couple of frames of brood. I cannot see any eggs. don’t know if my queen is laying.
Adding brood is good. If you add a frame of brood with fresh eggs, the bees will begin to build queen cells in 3 or 4 days.
I’ve done lots of research to understand the different varroa mite treatments. At this time I’m looking at vaporizing OA as my primary method but I like the idea of using essential oils. Have you investigated using FGMO and essential oils in a fogger like a Burgess mdown?
Most of the beekeepers that I know who used fogging (FGMO) did not have good results. It was found to be no more effective or even less than other methods. It is not approved and no reliable studies have been done to show effectiveness. So, I have never used FGMO. I would not recommend using essential oils in that method either. We have to remember that even though they may be natural – they are still very potent. You risk doing harm to the bees and/or yourself.
In your two Bee Health Boost recipes, there is no thyme oil. Why? What’s the difference between Honey B Healthy and Bee Health Boost? Would you alternate Honey B Healthy and Bee Health Boost?
There are many different recipes in use by beekeepers. I would use either Honey B Healthy or Bee Health Boost. Either should work as well.
At a recent bee conference, a speaker suggested adding a scent to a water dish near the beehive. This will teach the bees what good water is supposed to smell like and, hopefully, discourage them from visiting the neighbor’s dog’s water bowl. What oils would you recommend and what ratio of water to oil? (I don’t want to make it too strong.)
I think you might try lemon grass oil but it would only be a drop or so. Bees are very sensitive to scent.
how many lemongrass oil needed for swarm box? New to bee keeping Nova Scotia Canada
What is the grease patty recipe?
Can I rub some essential oil (menthol, eucaluptus or thyme on the front entrance of my hive to discourage mites?
I dont think it would work. When essentials give some benefit in the hive, I have found that it is either through direct contact with the mites and/or just promoting overall better health in the bees. Keep in mind that undiluted oils are very powerful, it might cause a bigger problem.
Embarrassed to admit that I dont really use a recipe most times. I measure out how much dry sugar I think I will need to make the patties and then add enough crisco to make it stick together. If you are adding Wintergreen Essential Oil to the mix – you must wear gloves as it can absorb through the skin and become a danger to you!.
I would apply 3 – 4 drops and repeat every week or two. Bees have a keen sense of smell . We dont want to overwhelm them.
Why not use hops essential oil as a treatment for mites on honey bees sense hopsguard is being used as an effective treatment?
Essential oils are natural but concentrated and powerful. I would not advise hops at this time because I have not read of anyone using them. I am always concerned about safety. And any EO is not a silver bullet for mites – my hope is that they promote good health and this is good for the colony over all.
I grow a lot of thyme. What are your thoughts of cutting handfuls of thyme and laying them across the frames for the winter?
Hi Charlotte, I am wondering about putting in twigs of spearmint and Lemon thyme directly into the hive, say on top of the frames. Would there be any positive benefit to that?
I’m not sure Tammy. It might cause more harm than good. I would be hesitate to do it unless some reputable beekeepers can explain more.
I dont think so at this time. It is the extract – oil of the plants that seem to have some benefit. Actual plant parts would give moths and hive beetle more room to hide. I would resist doing it at this time.
Hi I am looking at the recommended practice of adding a layer of wax to new frames. I was thinking that adding some essential oil to the melted wax would be a way of getting the essential oils into the hive.
What do you think?
Can’t find any information on this strategy.
I would not. There is a difference between putting some natural beeswax (that bees make) on frames vs adding something else. Sometimes we can “help” our bees too much and it causes problems.
Would there be any harm in planting thyme and spearmint near the hives? Or would that be a weak effort and ineffective?
It would look pretty and the bees might enough the blooms. But, I dont think it would have much if any impact on mites.
When you need to extra feed the bees because they haven’t enough food for the winter (and I didn’t take any honey either) On a sugar solution (for example 2 sugar : 1 water) how many % essential oils can you add without causing it any harm to the bees? I read somewhere 7%, but that would mean 70ml on 1 liter, which I think is a lot (really a lot)!. What are your thoughts?
No where near that much. I think many people use enough caution. Follow one of the commonly used recipes.
Was thinking of making a hunny b helthy mix and i see your oils you use here are not considered food grade!Dose that matter?
Does it matter? I don’t know. But every beekeeper that I know uses a good grade of essential oil and none of them are food grade.
Thank you for this article ~ there’s a lot of great info here that I’ve been having a hard time understanding from other sources.
One question: How do you use thyme oil? Would it be appropriate to add some thyme oil to sugar syrup to feed?
Hi. Do you have individual essential oil recipes or can point me to a website that has a recipe for using thyme essential oil alone? one for just spearmint oil alone? and one for oregano alone? and finally, one for just rosemary oil? I don’t want to combine essential oils. Let me know. Thanks
Hmm, sorry Christina – I do not. I have always used the oils in combination.
Hey there! Do you have a specific recipe using the thyme oil and wintergreen for varroa mite control? It looks like you only included bee health ones. Thanks so much!
I do not because I tried it and it did not work for me. I still had to do other treatments so I quit using it.
Can you use Wintergreen oil in sugar cakes to control SHB?
No Karen, not really. In my experience the benefits (if any) of using it were too minor to really count.
Watch out for those units in recipes, failure to do so may cause havoc.
My first attempt with Tea Tree, Spearmint, and wintergreen in a 2:2:1 proportion and hearing teaspoon and writing tablespoon per quart of water and then the amount to add to the sugar water, caused the bees to start buzzing and leave the feeder. I suspect it would have caused absconding eventually. But when I add the right proportion, the bees try to get in the top feeder when I’m pouring it. They love it!
Lesson learned that when trying something new, check on em in 30-45 minutes after giving it to them.
I agree that is good advise. Just because they are easy to acquire does not mean that essential oils should not be used with caution.