The Polar Vortex landed a blow to the Midwest 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.
A trio of essential oils
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 recipe
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. W
- hen 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.
Guest post by Julia Miller of MOTHER EARTH NEWS
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.
You wrote “add essential oil mixture and blend thoroughly. Return to boil”
Will this not boil off the essential oil?
It will not boil the oils off if the blend is quickly removed from boiling to cool.
Tried honey B Healthy as a swarm attractant put on drawn comps in a bait box. Hived two consecutive swarms into the box, they all went in, left them for a few hours, went back and found an empty bait box. Changed combs and box and successfully hived a third swarm. FYI.
I would be concerned that heating the essential oils would decrease the efficacy. Does it need to be heated until boiling or can it be added after the solution has cooled?
Because it is brought to boil and then immediately removed from heat, the oils should only be minimally compromised.
Where can the recipe for the patties be found?
I am very concerned with any method that heats the sugar beyond 110°F as this will start breaking down the sugars and forming HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural). See:
I have used a formula very similar to yours very successfully for a couple of years now but use little to no heat (< 100°F) to dissolve the sugar. It will actually dissolve just fine in room temp. water but a little heat makes it go a little quicker.
Thank you for your consideration.
You mention using Thyme oil for controlling Varroa mites, how are using this??
You can mix 6-8 drops of thyme oil into m16oz of mineral oil. spray it in a cloverleaf pattern onto a paper towel and put it on top of your frames. The fumes confuse mites and block their breathing pores. Thymol is active against fungus and somewhat effective in control of tracheal mites.
I found that orange oil diluted in water in a spray bottle is great for killing ants around my hives without harming my bees. I wouldn’t spray it in the hive or on the bees, but around worked fantastically for knocking back a large ant nest.
Have there been quantitative studies done on the efficacy of using essential oils to control mite populations? Cold you site them for me? I know about Thymol but am interested in quantitative studies done using other essential oils.
I have been successfully making the recipe above to help keep our bees healthy, but 2 things, & 2 questions….
1) at a recent bee keepers meeting, we were told not to use honey b healthy because it has no proven effect & attracts robber bees.
2) I purchased the lecithin “to help emulsify” the concoction, but the lecithin was the only thing that didn’t emulsify. I never used it again after the first attempt – so a waste of money. Has anyone else had the same issue?
3) I purchased food grade lavender oil in HI. Could I add that with the other ingredients if I make it again?
Can the oils be put in the sugar water after it’s heated? I boil the water then take off stove and add sugar. Then can I add the oil?
Your recipe doesn’t mention how much or about adding the Thyme essential oil.
Do you add the same amount as and with the other essential oils or leave it out?
Thank you for replying!
This author is simply regurgitating hearsay and anecdote- Like another commenter says- heating sugar to be fed to bees above 110F is not advised. There is no need to boil the water in this recipe at all.
how much oil will be added to the syrup 2 teaspoons of oil 1 liter of 1/1 syrup will be added or 1 liter of syrup how much oil
Hello, we would like to raise Honey Bees, Would you have availability for our starter boxes?
If not, would have a a reliable source for brood build? We are on 100 AC Vancouver Island and plant fruit trees and wild flowers throughout. The Bees would enjoy as roads are a ways away and it is quiet.