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.
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
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.
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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 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 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.
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 that is 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
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)
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.