Small Scale Rewilding

Lemon Balm or Melissa – What does it Do for Bees?

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is an important plant for beekeepers, as evident already in its name: melissa is a Greek word for ‘bee’. There seems to be some confusion, however, as to what is its exact role. It is a plant 50-80cm tall with beautiful foliage, tiny white flowers and a distinctive smell, reminiscent of lemon. Beekeepers agree that it attracts and calms bees. Makers of hives, as well as beekeeping literature and websites, recommend that you rub a few leaves of Lemon Balm on the inside walls of a new hive to make it more attractive to bees. Some also claim that if you rub the leaves on your hands, bees will not sting them.

There is uncertainty, however, as to whether it also provides nectar, and some participants of online forums on beekeeping say that they have never seen bees on it. The truth is that Lemon Balm is a very important nectar-producing plant. It makes it in large quantities when it flowers for a very long time (around 45-50 days) in July and August. It has been estimated that a two-acre field planted with Lemon Balm produces 130-150 kg of nectar in the course of a summer. The problem, however, is that honey bees can not get the nectar easily. It is hidden deep inside a long tubular flower (about 15mm long), and the tongue of a honey bee is simply not long enough to get it out without difficulty. So honey bees collect some nectar and pollen from Lemon Balm, but generally tend to choose other flowers. The majority of Lemon Balm nectar is consumed by other insects, such as bumble bees, and for them it is an important food source.

Lemon Balm is therefore a must have plant for any beekeeper or pollinator-lover, but not primarily as a source of nectar for honey bees. In addition to its use in beekeeping, it has many culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses, and tea made from fresh leaves is delightful. Melissa prefers rich soil though is generally undemanding and grows vigorously in dry hot weather. What it definitely needs is the sun: although it will grow in some shade, in such conditions it looses a lot of its scent (an important issue for a beekeeper!). The same happens if the plants are positioned too densely and as a result do not get the full sun.

Image credits: ‘Melissa officinalis’ by color line; Lemon Balm flowers by Christoph Zurnieden

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