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Creosote, With Reference to Beekeeping

Creosote had been used for many years for beehives and stands, especially by commercial beekeepers. In my early years of beekeeping, I was told that a good preservative was 2 parts creosote, 2 parts thin mineral oil such as hydraulic oil from machinery oil change and 1 part paraffin. Both inside and outside were treated, then allowed to air for several weeks/months in the open. Hive parts were used when there was no smell of creosote left.

The thinking was that creosote was a wood preservative, the oil repelled water and the paraffin allowed the mixture to be absorbed into the wood.

I can honestly say that contrary to popular opinion I have never detected the taint of creosote in honey. If this happened I suspect the parts weren't aired long enough by the beekeeper.

The above is placed here for historical purposes only. The use of creosote by amateurs in the U.K. is now restricted and you must seek correct guidance. In my experience, the substitutes do not seem to be anywhere near as effective. The button top left that will take you to the HSE website for latest information, though I found it difficult to find the right information. R.P.

In the past Creosote was widely used... It preserves the timber by killing any life form that would degrade it, (either beetle bacteria, or fungus), but it also kills bees even after long exposure or "airing".

There is one use to which it may be put... and that is the preservation of the lower portion of hive stand legs. Simply place 4 tin cans on the ground, each half full of creosote, then place the stand so that each of its legs are within one of the tins and leave it to soak into the end grain and partly up the legs.

It is a pity that the use of creosote is so frowned upon... I like the smell of it.

There is another use for it, that may be legitimate, but I have not tried this personally... I have read in the past, I cannot remember where, that it was used to combat acarine mites by disrupting their sense of smell. The method used was to soak small sticks of balsa wood (or cedar wood), 6 mm square x 65 mm long, in the creosote... allow to dry then place on the floorboard, at the back of the hive. If anyone has more details perhaps they would Email me. I do not recommend this as there are modern mite controls available and acarine is not much of a problem in UK these days.

The following summary is from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


There is no molecular representation since this substance is a mixture of many compounds.

HIGHLIGHTS: Eating food or drinking water with high levels of creosote may cause burning in the mouth, and throat, stomach pains, severe skin irritation, convulsions and kidney and liver problems. Creosote has been found in at least 33 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

(FAQ) about creosote.

What is creosote?
Creosote is the name used for a variety of products: wood creosote, coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal tar pitch volatiles. These products are mixtures of many chemicals created by high-temperature treatment of beech and other woods, coal, or from the resin of the creosote bush. Wood creosote is a colorless to yellowish greasy liquid with a smoky odour and burned taste. Coal tar creosote is a thick, oily liquid that is typically amber to black in colour. Coal tar and coal tar pitch are usually thick, black, or dark-brown liquids or semi solids with a smoky odour.

Wood creosote
has been used as a disinfectant, a laxative and a cough treatment, but is rarely used these ways today.

Coal tar products
are used in medicines to treat skin diseases such as psoriasis, and are also used as animal and bird repellants, insecticides, restricted pesticides, animal dips and fungicides.

Coal tar creosote
is the most widely used wood preservative in the United States.

Coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal tar pitch volatiles are used for roofing, road paving, aluminum smelting and coking.

What happens to creosote when it enters the environment?

Coal tar creosote is released to water and soil mainly as a result of its use in the wood preservation industry. It may dissolve in water and may move through the soil to the groundwater. Once it is in the groundwater, it may take many years for it to break down.

Coal tar creosote can build up in plants and animals.

No information is available on what happens to wood creosote when it enters the environment.

How might I be exposed to creosote?

Eating herbal remedies containing the leaves from the creosote bush (chaparral) which are sold as dietary supplements.

Working in the wood preservative, coke-producing or asphalt industries

Using creosote-treated wood in building fences, bridges or railroad tracks or installing telephone poles.

Living in treated-wood houses that may result in air or skin contact with creosote.

Drinking water contaminated by a hazardous waste site.

How can creosote affect my health?

Animal testing is sometimes necessary to find out how toxic substances might harm people or to treat those who have been exposed. Laws today protect the welfare of research animals and scientists must follow strict guidelines.

Breathing vapours of the creosotes, coal tar, coal tar pitch or coal tar pitch volatiles can cause irritation of the respiratory tract. Eating large amounts of creosote (any form) may cause a burning in the mouth and throat and stomach pains. Eating large amounts of herbal remedies containing creosote bush leaves may cause liver damage, while large amounts of coal tar creosote may result in severe skin irritation, eye burns, convulsions, unconsciousness and even death.

Long-term (365 days or longer) exposure to lower levels of coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch or coal tar pitch volatiles by skin or air contact can cause skin damage such as blistering or peeling.

Studies have shown that when pregnant animals breathe creosote, it may cause harmful effects to the baby.

Animals fed large amounts of wood creosote had convulsions and died, while those fed lower levels had liver and kidney problems.

How likely is creosote to cause cancer?

Long-term exposure, especially direct contact with skin during wood treatment or manufacture of coal tar creosote-treated products, to low levels of creosote has resulted in skin cancer and cancer of the scrotum. Cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps has been associated with long-term skin exposure to soot and coal tar creosotes. Animal studies have also shown skin cancer from skin exposure to coal tar products.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that coal tar creosote is probably carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has also determined that coal tar creosote is a probable human carcinogen.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to creosote?

There is no medical test to determine if you have been exposed to creosote. However, some chemicals found in coal tar products can be found/measured in body tissues. Urine tests are commonly done for employees in industries that work with coal tar creosote, coal tar and coal tar pitch.

This test isn't available at most doctors' offices, but can be done at special laboratories that have the right equipment. These tests can confirm that you have been exposed to chemicals found in coal tar creosote and other coal tar products, but cannot predict whether you will experience any health effects.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

The EPA requires that spills or accidental releases into the environment of 1 pound or more of creosote be reported to the EPA.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an exposure limit of 0.2 milligrams of coal tar pitch volatiles per cubic meter of air (0.2 mg/m3) in the workplace during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) recommends the same level for coal tar pitch volatiles.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a maximum level of 0.1 mg/m3 of coal tar pitch volatiles for a 10-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.


Carcinogenic: = Ability to cause cancer
CAS: = Chemical Abstracts Service
Insecticide: = A substance that kills insects
Pesticide: = A substance that kills pests
Volatile: (Adjective) = Easily changed into a vapour or a gas
Volatile: (noun) = Short for "Volatile Substance"

This information is taken from the 1996 Toxicological Profile for Creosote produced by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service in Atlanta, GA.

Originally written by Dave Cushman. Edited by Roger Patterson.

Page created pre-2011

Page updated 21/08/2022