Let’s face it, the bees need all the help they can get these days. Organic beekeeping methods often involve using herbs to help repel mites and pests within beehives.
What if the bees could gather their own medicine? Could that lead to more resilient hives?
There is some evidence that anti-microbial and anti-fungal herbs can help prevent disease within hives. Specifically, the essential oils of thyme and mint are commonly used (and effective!) treatments for varroa mites.
By planting a medicinal herb garden, you have the opportunity to not only strengthen your health, while at the same time improving the health of your local pollinator population.
Help the bees, heal yourself.
Most natural beekeepers are already familiar with using thyme within the hive. Apiguard, which is made from thyme, is 95% effective for treating some of the biggest killers of honeybee hives (varroa mites, tracheal mites, and chalkbrood).
Thyme blooms are an excellent nectar source, providing enough food to produce 150 pounds of honey per acre.
For your own health, thyme can treat bacterial and fungal infections, and it’s my go-to treatment for coughs and congestion. Thyme tea with a bit of lemon and honey clears me up in minutes. Thyme is one of the main ingredients in Yogi Tea’s “Breath Deep Blend” to help support respiratory health.
Some varieties of mint are better at producing flowers than others. One of my favorites to plant for the bees is called “Apple Mint.” It produces large flower spikes that the bees swarm all over in the fall, and it’s the perfect plant for an out-of-the-way untended area.
Mints of all sorts are known to grow out of control, and in my experience apple mint is more invasive than most. We planted a big patch on the far side of the pond, and it takes over more land every year. Make sure you plant it in an out-of-the-way spot.
Apple mint, like all mints, won’t come true to seed. The only way to grow it is from a plant division. Plants are available here.
Anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties mean that oregano is useful in treating a whole host of different illnesses. In humans, it’s commonly used to treat respiratory issues, in much the same way as thyme.
You don’t think of oregano as a medicinal, but it’s good for more than just pasta sauce. Buddha teas makes a straight oregano tea with a pleasant taste for sipping to get over your chest cold.
Oregano is almost no maintenance and it takes over large patches of land as a low growing ground cover, effectively smothering out weeds. In the late summer and fall, the ground will be covered with small white flowers that the bees actively seek out as a prime food source.
Well known as an immune stimulant for humans, it may also work to stimulate the immune systems of animals and insects. There’s not a lot of research in this area, but regardless, the bees love a good echinacea patch. It’s a hardy perennial, and once planted it spreads itself and produces huge crops of blooms to feed the bees.
Whether or not it actually helps them in any medicinal way, it’s still an important food source. It has the added benefit of keeping you healthy all winter long, so you can stay on top of tending your hives!
Echinacea is a perennial, and once established you’ll have a dense patch of bee food ready to eat. Echinacea seeds are available here.
Since borage loses its potency quickly when dried, it’s the perfect herb to have on hand in your own garden. The leaves contain compounds that are used to treat literally dozens of different things in humans. The flowers, which are of more interest to the bees, are sweet and abundant.
When borage is cultivated on a large scale at herbal medicine farms, bees feeding on the nectar can produce 200 pounds of honey per acre.
With bee in the name, you know they’re bound to like it. Both the wild and cultivated strains of bee balm are a favorite of the bees.
Bee balm also contains thymol, which is the active constituent in thyme that’s used to treat varroa mites. It’s naturally antimicrobial as well.
In humans, bee balm is made into a delicious tea that helps to treat digestive issues. An oxymel made from the petals is also used for respiratory issues.
Wild bee balm is a perennial that requires little to no tending once it’s established. Seeds are available here.
A syrup made from chamomile flowers and sugar is used by biodynamic beekeepers to feed bees in the winter and early spring. While obviously, it’s best if bees are eating honey, if they need a little extra help to make it through to the next summer, feeding them a herb-infused sugar syrup is the next best thing.
The herbs help provide trace amounts of pollen for nutrients, and chamomile, in particular, is chosen because it’s said to have the most pleasing flavor to the bees.
Chamomile seeds are tiny and generally inexpensive, so they’re sown heavily. This small pack of 25,000 chamomile seeds is rated to cover just 100 square feet.
Though chives repel most types of insects, they actually attract bees. They’re planted in gardens to increase “beneficial” insect types while at the same time keeping pests at bay. If you want to reduce the competition your bees face and give them a leg up, chives are a great way to do it.
Chives grow readily from seed and overwinter as a perennial even in cold regions. Every three years the dense patches need to be split up to allow room for more growth, which means that after your first patch is established you’ll have plenty to spread around. Chive seeds are available here.
Like many of these herbs, elecampane is a respiratory herb. It’s commonly used in mixes for bronchitis and to help people quit smoking.
I can’t help but wonder if these qualities help it discourage tracheal mites in bees. Whether it has any medicinal effect is totally unknown, but the bees eagerly cover the blossoms in the summertime.
In humans, elecampane commonly taken as a tincture to support the respiratory tract.
The blossoms of nasturtiums are large enough to accommodate even the biggest of bumblebees. Though the flowers are often eaten by humans as a decorative (and tasty) topping for salads, they’re also medicinal. The leaves, in particular, are antibiotic, and folk remedies say to eat the leaves at the first hint of a cold’s onset to stop it in its tracks.
These flowers are particularly easy to grow, and you’ll often see them decorating porches in hanging baskets. We keep ours hanging by the front door, so we can watch the bees come and go as we come and go. Though orange is the most common color, they come in all sorts of shades, as you can see in this nasturtium seed mix.
A huge source of both nectar and pollen, lemon balm can provide enough nectar in an acre to make between 150 and 250 pounds of honey.
A calming herb, it’s used to reduce stress and anxiety. It’s an adaptogen, that’s used to help you overcome whatever trials and tribulations are happening in your life at the moment. Traditional Medicinals makes a delightful Lemon Balm Tea, and it’s also commonly taken as a tincture for nervous system support.
All I can hope is that it provides the same medicinal benefits to bees, and helps them overcome their current troubles. At the very least, it’ll keep their stomachs full!
Lemon balm is a perennial that self sows and thrives without maintenance. Plant it somewhere you’ll walk by often so you can enjoy the fragrance of the leaves all summer long. Seeds are available here.
Elderberries are well known for their immune-boosting properties. We make a large batch of elderberry oxymel every year with our own honey and raw apple cider vinegar. The flowers are medicinal as well and are used to treat swollen sinuses, bronchitis, colds and flu.
This syrup mixes elderflowers with linden flowers and thyme (both excellent bee forage) for use as a cough syrup for immune support.
Are you noticing a trend here? Just about all the herbs listed support the immune system, are antimicrobial and are useful for respiratory issues. It makes me wonder if the bees are seeking them out for more than their nectar.
What do you think? Have you noticed the bees flocking towards the medicinals in your yard?