Home Remedies for Honey Bee Maladies

A very populous hive of bees

The white material is what remains of an Essential Oil pad after a few days.

Before I step out on a limb I should first tell you that the USDA approved way of treating your bee hives for mites and diseases is to use a USDA/EPA approved treatment which has been scientifically tested and approved for those applications – which are produced of course by the nice folks in the  agricultural chemical/pharmaceutical complex  who produce the ag chemicals that get sprayed on crop fields next to your apiary.

The regimen that I am going to tell you about here may not even work.   The main reason that I think it does work is that since I started keeping bees in 2009 I have yet to lose a single hive (other than a few small, weak, queenless mating nucs – which have secumbed to hive beetles) to any parasite or disease.  I over wintered 10 hives last year – all of which were strong in the spring, and produced my first ever honey crop this year.  There may well be some other factors at work and they may all die tomorrow -  So use your own judgment.  However, I’m not alone in using these concoctions – other people also report success using similar mixtures and methods.  In addition to these home remedies I also apply an organic acid treatment in December when hives are pretty much broodless.

Essential Oils are produced by plants as a defense mechanism – basically to prevent animals, insects, and perhaps microbes from eating them.  Some essential oils have been scientifically proven to be effective mitacides (toxic to mites, such as varroa and tracheal mites) – for example thymol the active ingredient in Apiguard (a Commercial product used to combat varroa mites) is the main aromatic in essential oil of the herb thyme.  You can get essential oils right off of the shelf at your local health food store.

These substances may work in any of several ways – When bees eat them or feed them to larva their hemolymph (bee blood) may become toxic to mites that feed on them.  In brood the mite reproduction process may be suppressed when larva have been fed some essential oils.  Essential oils may be physically applied to the mites during grooming or by bee house keeping activities.  The smell of the essential oils may also repel mites or interfere with their ability to home in on their food sources – brood and adult bees.

You should also know that there may be some downsides to using essential oils on your bees – either home brewed or commercial preparations.  Essential oils (or any medication, or dietary supplement for that matter) may have a negative impact on beneficial bee hive flora and fauna, they may also interfere with the bees ability to communicate or interact by their sense of smell.  I don’t know of any studies that have been done on that, but I have heard those points speculated by people who know more about it than I do.  Also, the concentration of active ingredients (such as thymol) are not really regulated in these products like they would be in pharmaceuticals – so it may not be as exact as a commercial preparation would be.

Thyme Oil Pads

  • 1 ounce (30 ml) essential oil of thyme (both red and white thyme will work)
  • 130 ml food grade mineral oil
  • 15 heavy paper towels folded in quarters.

These are simply paper towels folded twice and soaked in a mixture of 30 ml (one ounce) of essential oil of thyme (red or white – doesn’t matter) and 130 ml of food grade mineral oil (sold in pharmacies and dollar stores for use as a laxative).  I mix the oil right in a mineral oil bottle that I have marked with a pen at 130 ml – then add a whole 1 ounce bottle of Essential oil of thyme.  According to my calculation this results in about a 3.5% thymol mixture.   Quarter fold 15 paper towels and put them in a zip lock bag, add the oil mixture to the bag and kneed it a bit to get them all nice and oily.  Tip – Some food products (splenda) come in zip lock mylar bags that are much more oil resistant than regular baggies.

Lay one of these right on top of the brood frames.  The bees will shred the paper and carry it out of the colony over the course of a few weeks.  This doesn’t seem to cause any adverse effects – queen or brood mortality.  Right now – August – would be a good time to use this method in advance of the fall build up.  Following up in two weeks with a second application – after currently capped brood has emerged – would probably be a good idea.

Less than $1.50 per application.

Essential Oil Feeding Stimulant with Thyme Oil

You can use this as a feeding stimulant whenever there is no danger that it will end up in honey that you will  harvest – and in theory the essential oils will end up in the bees and brood, and might mitigate mite problems.   It will also help to prevent feed syrup from fermenting or growing mold.

This recipe will keep for a long time, and can be used to treat 80 gallons of feed.  You can make more than 4 batches out of 1 ounce bottles of essential oil.  About 12 cents per gallon of treated feed.

  • 7.2 ml essential oil of lemon grass
  • 7.2 ml essential oil of spearmint
  • 3.6 ml essential oil of thyme
  • 1 teeny tiny drop of soy lecithin to make oil and water mix – emulsifier in other words
  • Sugar syrup to make 1/2 gallon.

This recipe will keep for a long time, and can be used to treat 80 gallons of feed.  You can make more than 4 batches out of 1 ounce bottles of essential oil – and over half of the thyme will be left over.

Measuring small amounts like this can be easily done using a veterinary syringe that is available from the farmers co-op or Tractor supply store.  You can also use an “eye” dropper if it has a graduated volume marked on it.  I use a graduated shot glass to measure the mixture into gallons of feed syrup as I make it.

Don’t be fooled by the small amounts of essential oils – they are really strong, and the amounts in the bill of ingredients are not typos.

First mix up some sugar syrup by putting 5 pounds of sugar in a gallon jug, fill with hot tap water and shake until all of the sugar dissolves – then top it off with water.  This results in a mixture that is a bit more than 1-1 sugar/water.  Mix the essential oils and lecithin in a 1/2 gallon jug – the clear plastic ones that juice comes in are more durable than milk jugs.  Fill it about 1/2 full with sugar syrup, shake to mix, then top up with sugar syrup. If you see a yellow waxy substance float to the top – that is excess lecithin, don’t worry about it.  If you see oil float to the top, add a bit more lecithin and continue mixing.  It should look (and smells) about like lemonade.

Shake well before mixing this concentrated mixture with sugar syrup feed at the rate of:

  • 1.6 oz to one gallon of syrup
  • 1 cup to five gallons of syrup

One caution though, using any “feeding stimulant” which contains lemon grass oil (such as Honey-Bee-Healthy) can aggravate robbing.  The bees can smell it, and they really like it – so be careful when there is a danger of robbing.  Like July and August for example.  Unfortunately late summer and fall are probably the best time to use something like this – just be careful, reduce hive entrances, and keep an eye on weak hives.

One can get in trouble (and rightfully so) by making unsubstantiated claims about the effectiveness of “alternative” remedies.  However the only way to legally substantiate those claims is to perform expensive scientific research – which is usually funded by someone who expects to profit from the sale of the substance in question.  One problem with this system is that if a potential remedy is not likely to be profitable (because it is already cheap and freely available for example) no one is likely to spend the large amounts required to do that research.  The result is that there may be safe, effective, inexpensive ways to treat things, but you have to be really careful about making any claims about their effectiveness.  “Dietary Supplements” are a great example.  The Red Yeast Rice pills that our doctor told my wife “might” be worth trying for her blood pressure (and seem to work) can’t say “for the treatment of high blood pressure” on the box, and doctors even have to be careful about how they talk about it.  Even if it really does work.

So all I’m saying is that these things might work.  They also might not.

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4 Responses to Home Remedies for Honey Bee Maladies

  1. sandra says:

    I find your info on thyme very interesting. Isn’t it possible that the bees would get enough oil if you planted alot of thyme near their hives and let them get it naturally? This is my first year in beekeeping and find all this info very interesting. I would appreciate any input you may have on this theory. Thanks! Sandy

    • David LaFerney says:

      That might be possible, and I know of at least one person in Massachusetts who is (or was at the time) treatment free, and grew lots of herbs which she thinks helps with mites – and results in a uniquely flavorful honey. Bees do work the flowers of anything in the mint family when they are available so at the very least it is a bit of forage.

  2. keith Emrich says:

    How are the bees wintering? I live in Livingston and have 5 hives. I have bought some oils and will be administering these through both drench and patties via information on U. of W.V. website. They used wintergreen for varoa and trachea mite control in fall. So far I still have 5 hives but will probably need to feed due to warmer weather and active hives. Do you have similar situation? This is the 3rd spring for keeping bees and I think I will never get to where there is nothing else to learn so I appreciate your willingness to share what you have learned with others.
    Thanks,
    Keith Emrich

    • David LaFerney says:

      My hives are wintering pretty well – but I planned to feed all along. I’ve fed granulated sugar for the past 2 years and it has worked well for me – the bees don’t starve and the sugar helps to control moisture in the hive. I think the mild weather is a good thing as long as you don’t let them run out of food.

      You should come to our meetings in Cookeville even though you live in Livingston you would be welcome to visit any time.

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