Richters InfoSheet D9001  

Herbal Beekeeping

Bees are, in the words of the noted animal herbalist Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, “instinctive and highly skilled herbalists.”1 They respond favourably to the intelligent use of herbs to provide nectar and protection from disease and natural enemies.

By growing ample nectariferous herbs in the vicinity of the hives, the beekeeper can promote the good health of his bees, and ultimately improve honey, quality and yields. Clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, melilot, and wild plants such as goldenrod and aster, are important sources of nectar; but frequently these are either not sufficiently abundant or they are rendered poisonous to bees by insecticidal sprays.

Testing done in co-operation with The American Bee Journal in the interest of finding better honey and polIen plants has resulted in the isolation of a number of herbs notable for their hardiness, nectar production and attractiveness to bees.2 Some of the more prominent herbs include anise-hyssop, catnip, hyssop, purple loosestrife, common marjoram, motherwort and mountain-mint.

According to herbal beekeepers Susan and Hugh Hamilton3, herbs have valuable uses inside the hive as well. To condition new hives before starting a colony, scented geraniums and rosemary are rubbed on the insides. To keep ants out of weak colonies, the Hamiltons recommend laying catnip, mint or pennyroyal on top of the inner cover. Wormwood leaves stuffed in and around entrances and under the telescoping cover helps prevent bees from robbing each other. Wormwood also eliminates the human odour from hands when rubbed with it allowing for easier access to the hives. It also masks the odour of the queen when rubbed on areas from which swarms have been removed.

Sage is the medicinal herb recommended by herbal apiarists.l,3 As a spring cleanser the Hamiltons feed each colony 5 kg of honey mixed with 5 kg of tea brewed from 70 mL (14 teaspoons) sage, 20 mL (4 tsp) thyme, 20 mL (4 tsp) chamomile steeped 20 minutes in 5 litres of warm water (55-65°C). They also use the Bach Flower remedies to treat hives for shock and general weakness.

Powdered garlic used in the hive helps to keep mites away according to feedback from a reader.

Lastly, there are herbs for the beekeeper himself! Comfrey and calendula leaves and flowers are good rubbed on bee stings, as are the leaves of the common weed, plantain.

Nectariferous Herbs1,2,3,4,5

Highly Recommended

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Excellent nectar producer. Honey is white to amber in colour. Annual.

Anise-hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).
Sometimes called the “Wonder Honey Plant” because really feast on it. It is estimated that a hectare (2.5 acres) of anise-hyssop is sufficient pasture for 250 hives. Blooms for most of the summer. Perennial.

Bergamot (Monarda didyma and fistulosa)
Also known as Bee Balm. Both species are well known beeplants. Perennial.

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Excellent nectar producer. Bees forage heavily on this herb. Produces a dark and thick honey with strong flavour. Annual.

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Also known as Blueweed. One of the best nectar producers in southern Ontario during June, July and August. Honey is white to golden in colour; delicate flavour. Perennial.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria and other species)
Very rich in nectar, and blooms over a long period starting in mid-summer. Well suited for naturalizing in waste places. Perennial.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
Excellent nectar in June to mid-July. Produces a white to amber honey. Perennial.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Bees swarm over this June to September.

Joe-pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Good nectar producer in August and September. Honey is light amber colour and strong flavour. Perennial.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
One of the finest beeplants in wet areas. It is major source of nectar, but is now considered invasive. Honey is light amber in colour with a herbal flavour. Late summer and fall. Perennial.

Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
A favourite of honey bees. Blooms mid-summer. High quality honey with fine flavour and aroma. Perennial.

Melilot (Melilotus officinalis)
Also known as Sweet Clover. One of best nectar producers in Ontario. Produces a white, mild, slightly spicy honey. Annual.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)
Widely acclaimed beeplant, blooming most of the summer. Very easy to naturalize in waste areas. Honey is amber with a strong mint flavour. Remains liquid for months. Perennial.

Mountain-mint (Pycnathemum pilosum)
Abundant source of nectar. Minty flavour. Perennial.

Thyme (Thymus spp.)
The wild thyme (T. serpyllum) is especially notable as a honey plant, but all thymes are good beeplants. Honey is dark to amber with a strong yet delicate herbal flavour. Perennial.

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
Good nectar producer from mid-July to mid-August. Grows in wet lowland areas. Honey is dark in colour and pleasant flavour. Perennial.

Other Nectariferous Herbs

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Basil (Ocimum spp.)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Clove-pink (Dianthus caryophyllus)
Germander (Teucrium spp.)
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
Mignonette (Reseda odorata)
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Nasturtium (Tropaelum spp.)
Savory (Satureja spp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus annus)


1 Bairacli-Levy, J. de 1952. Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, Faber and Faber, UK.

2 Pellett, M. 1974. Honey plants. In: Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

3 Hamilton, S. and H. 1982. Herbal Beekeeping, Works End Farm, South Mountain, ON.

4 Sauriol, C. 1987. Planning a garden with the bees in mind. Harrowsmith Vol. XII:2, No. 75. pp. 69-73.

5 Larsson, H.C., and Shuel, R. 1990. Nectar Trees, Shrubs and Herbs of Ontario. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Toronto, ON.


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D9001   ©2001 Otto Richter and Sons Limited


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