Using Essential Oils for Honeybees

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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.