REDGRANITE — Honeybees forage among a variety of plants as they collect nectar to take back to their hives. Some of them may be searching out special plants as a way to self-medicate, according to Melanie Kirby, a New Mexico beekeeper who presented information about an ongoing study during the summer meeting of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association in Redgranite.
Kirby is part of a team of researchers, beekeepers and farmers looking at the properties of wild oregano (Monarda fistulosa), a member of the mint family, also known as bee balm or wild bergamot. They want to know more about the medicinal benefits of oregano for bees and humans and whether there are potential markets for products based on New Mexico honey.
The oregano subspecies mentafolia grows wild in the high mountains of New Mexico and is known there as oregano de la Sierra. Kirby, who operates Zia Queenbee Co. between Taos and Santa Fe, said she and local oregano grower Todd Bates were talking with New Mexico State University researcher Robert Heyduck about some unhealthy hives of bees that seemed to get stronger after foraging on plants grown by Bates.
The anecdotal information piqued Heyduck’s interest, and he applied for a specialty crop grant to learn more, Kirby said.
The research goals are to determine any health benefits from oregano de la Sierra for the bees and possibly human benefits, and then find and promote products for bees and humans using the active compounds in oregano.
“Also, what is the benefit to the farmer? Why would a farmer want to plant it?” Kirby said.
There is already information on the natural benefits of oregano as a health agent, but testing has been done on animals such as poultry and rabbits, Kirby said. The volatile compounds are antifungal, antiparasitic and antimicrobial/antibiotic for those animals. Bates is taking advantage of that knowledge and cultivates the plants commercially. Some product is sold as dried leaf for human food, and some is sold as a tincture to local poultry producers for medicine.
For the NMSU study, three research sites were selected with hives on each. The primary site was on Bates’s farm where some hives had access only to the oregano. Others were farther from the growing beds and had more varied diets. One question researchers had was whether bees would intentionally seek out the oregano, possibly to self medicate.
“I spent one morning marking bees at all the different hives, and then that midmorning went back to see how many had found it, and all had found it,” Kirby said. “They had come from even two miles away and found that oregano, even though there is all this other stuff blooming.”
Samples were taken of flower nectar and hive honey before and during exposure to the oregano. A third sampling is planned for later this summer 30 days after the bees are removed from the sampling area. Researchers want to identify any compositional differences between flower nectar and stored nectar, if any. Findings are being analyzed and should be released sometime in the next month.
The study is also looking at the bees to analyze their health status and at dried flowers steeped in honey to see whether the healthful volatile compounds will transfer to honey that way.
One of the compounds identified in the study was thymol.
“Specific to bee health, thymol has been successful in control of varroa mites and prevents fermentation from mold,” Kirby said. “This was our hope, that there would be enough concentration of it in oregano to help.”
Heyduck has done additional work using New Mexico honey as a topical to treat MRSA (antibiotic resistant staph infections) and found 65 percent reduction in the wounds in his trial. He is also looking at other plant pollens found in New Mexico honey to see if any of them might have health benefits.
The trial promises to have widespread benefits.
NMSU researchers are developing an experimental template that can be used anywhere to analyze other plants and their health effects in honey. More information can be found at www.herbs4bees.com.