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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Using Essential Oils for Honeybees

Circle of BeesThe Polar Vortex landed a blow to the Mid-West where Five Feline Farm is located. Many of the beekeepers in this area report a significant loss of colonies over the harsh winter. One beekeeper described opening a hive to find bees appearing frozen in place. The entire colony dead.

Our losses are not confirmed at this point but at least one of the two hives appears alive. The bees show signs of cleansing flights and cleaning of the hive. These stories of colony death prompted me to search for ways to improve the health of our bees to guard against such losses.

This is where essential oils come in.

Over the winter, we fed candy boards purchased from a reputable source that included protein and a product called Honey B Healthy. My research shows this is basically a proprietary mix of essential oils.

As a small operation, we have the option to create our own supplements in manageable quantities. This does two things. First it is likely a cheaper route and we can control the ingredients both in proportion and quality.

Three primary essential oils are useful in beekeeping: lemongrass, spearmint and thyme. Other oils such as wintergreen, spearmint and tea tree oil are also used in some formulations. When selecting an essential oil, it is critical to source food grade oils. Organic certification is a plus. All of these essential oils are plant based, natural products safe for human consumption. Most are readily available in health food stores.

Thyme Oil

The active ingredient in thyme oil is thymol. This compound assists in controlling the Varroa mite. It works by confusing the mite and blocking it's pores. Used in combination with a screened bottom board the mites become confused, fall to the ground through the screen and are unable to climb back up into the hive.

Spearmint Oil

The mint family of essential oils also assist in treating the varroa mite in the same manner as thyme oil. They also mask other scents while not mimicking any of the honeybees own pheromones.

Lemongrass Oil

Lemongrass oil appears to be the most versatile of the essential oils used with honeybees. It is used as a treatment in the hive, a supplement for nutritional balance and as bait in swarm traps. This essential oil has anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. It also mimics the attractant pheromone of the honeybee. This property requires careful use with weak hives. The scent may lure robber bees to the hive and the weak colony is unable to defend itself.

Use of Essential Oils

Essential oils may be delivered to the bees in several ways. One is in a base of 1:1 sugar syrup fed through the standard hive feeders for syrup.

Semi-solid patties may be mixed and placed on the top of the frames above the brood. Usually this type of mixture is spread between pieces of waxed paper. Bees consume the mixture and throw the waxed paper out the front door. These types of patties are commercially sold as brood builder patties or winter patties.  The advantage to mixing your own is control of ingredients.

Some beekeepers use a spray mixture with a low sugar content and essential oils when working in the hives. This is used in place of the smoker. Individuals with a sensitivity to smoke may find this an appealing concept.

Lastly I have read of a method using a concentrated sugar syrup with up to four times the normal amount of oils can be drenched over the bees as a treatment. About a cup of this mixture is poured over the bees. They stop all other activity to clean up the mess which they then ingest as they lick themselves and the hive. This method encourages them to consume the treatment which they might otherwise ignore at this concentration. Although there are anecdotal reports of this as an effective treatment for heavy varroa mite infestations, I hesitate to pour liquid over my bees. Perhaps the better method is to keep infestations low if possible. 

Essential Oil Treatment

2 1/2 cups water
2 3/4 cups sugar
1/16 tsp lecithin granules
8 drops food-grade spearmint oil
8 drops food-grade lemongrass oil

Bring water to a boil. Meanwhile thoroughly mix oils with lecithin granules until lecithin is dissolved. When water is boiling, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add essential oil mixture and blend thoroughly. Return to boil, then remove from heat and allow to cool.

Add two teaspoons of the above mixture to a quart of 1:1 sugar syrup and feed to bees as usual.

This supplement will be used at Five Feline Farm for both existing hives and new package colonies. Feeding will start when the weather warms enough to fully inspect the hives until a strong nectar flow begins in approximately late May.

In addition to beekeeping, Five Feline Farm demonstrates a modern homesteading approach to living. We grow as much of our own food as possible and strive for ways to reduce our dependence on chemicals in the house and gardens.

12/13/2015 10:24:48 AM

I am a natural health practitioner and hobby bee keeper. Yes there is such a thing as therapeutic grade essential oils, unfortunately this is not regulated at this time, although Gary Young is fighting to make it so (to keep unethical groups from adding chemicals or cutting the essential oil with other substances). That said, I would love to hear of your experience using this recipe, see if you've incorporated the thyme into a treatment yet, and find out if you've tried colloidal silver to treat for nosema yet. I've been experimenting with the colloidal silver treatment on my bees and am wondering if anyone else has any observations to add. Thanks.

5/18/2015 7:56:11 PM

Turtlebackhollow, you add it to one quart of syrup. There is no such thing as therapeutic grade essential oils except when used as a marketing term by a couple of pyramid-scheme essential oil producers. TsandiCrew I have hives that starve with loads of honey in the hive. They sometimes just won't move to it. Also, many hives die in winter not from a lack of honey but because disease has infested the hive and they can't fight it successfully over winter. These essential oil recipes are to help boost the bee's immune systems and fight the mites that carry and transfer disease in the hive. The syrup or patties are used as distribution methods. You seem awfully judgmental about something you don't seem to understand well.

4/6/2015 1:09:52 AM

Food grade essential oils can be diluted and cut with synthetics. Better to focus on therapeutic-grade essential oils, as not all oils are made the same. I have an outstanding source of therapeutic-grade oils, visit for info!

9/22/2014 10:13:50 AM

You are supposed to leave enough honey for the bees to eat through the winter. They don't make honey for us. They make it for them. We just come and rob them. So of course they die in the winter. Really heartbreaking.

an ga
3/28/2014 3:18:53 PM

I've have made wintergreen grease patties to control varroa and had some success. I was just wondering why the recipe above doesn't include the Thyme oil discussed in the article?

3/28/2014 11:39:40 AM

How much 1:1 sugar syrup are you adding the 2 tsp to?