ROCKPORT, Maine — There’s a growing buzz about honeybees.
Tending honeybees is a booming business these days as more Mainers take up raising their own hives. Attendance at beekeeping schools is on the rise as raising honeybees has captivated both rural and urban communities.
“Backyard beekeeping is very much alive and well in Maine,” trumpeted Jean Vose. “Every bee school in Maine has doubled their capacity in the past year. It’s refreshing and it’s heart-warming that we have so much interest in bees today.”
Vose should know. She and her husband, Dick, have been tending to honeybees at their Vose Apiaries in Nobleboro since arriving in Maine 15 years ago. Ten years before that they were tending their own hives in Worcester County, Mass.
The Voses were one of the many attractions at Saturday’s Earth Day Green Fair at Plants Unlimited. Besides learning about bees, those attending the event had the opportunity to take in a hawk and owl show, sit in on seminars on pruning fruit trees, extending the vegetable growing season, growing greens all year, growing ap-ples all year, the lives of bats, forest management and how to identify native plants.
When the Voses started a beekeeping school at SAD 40 in Waldoboro five years ago, their first class had 13 students. They now have 50. Dick Vose is a past president of the Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers and Jean is the school’s director.
“People ask me, ‘Do you get stung?’ Yes, you do. ‘Does it hurt?’ Yes, it does,” Dick said.
Honeybees are the only insects that produce foods for humans. Unlike wasps, hornets and bumblebees, honeybees are vegetarians whose only food source is pollen and nectar. They can fly up to 15 mph and travel more than two miles from their hive in search of nectar and pollen.
During the peak of summer, more than 70,000 bees can fill a hive, virtually all except the queen spending their days working to collect honey. The “worker bees” collect half their weight each day, filling the hive with the honey they’ll need to sustain them over the winter.
One of the more attentive members of the Voses’ audience was 8-year-old Cody Crummett of Warren. Crummett had studied bees in school and had questions and tidbits of information to share, including the fact that the queen bee and her larvae feed on a special “royal jelly” that worker bees secrete from glands in their head. Royal jelly is not consumed by the other bees.
“Very good question, Cody,” Jean said repeatedly during the talk.
Although there are more than 270 species of native bees in Maine, honeybees are not native to North America. They arrived with the English colonists in the early 1600s and it is estimated that it took them half a century to make it to the West Coast.
“The Native Americans called them the white man’s flies,” Jean said. “When they saw them coming, they knew the white men were coming right behind.”
Jean Vose said most of the nation’s agricultural products are pollinated by honeybees. Commercial beekeepers transport hives all around the country during the blossom season.
About 60,000 colonies of bees are brought to Maine each spring to pollinate commercial crops such as wild blueberries and apples. Adding in local honey production, bees contribute $100 million to $150 million annually to Maine’s economy, according to the Maine State Beekeepers Association.
In recent years, many of those commercial hives have been decimated by an unknown disease known as colony collapse disorder. Jean Vose said researchers have yet to determine why the bees are dying, but she believes stress could be a likely cause. She said bees, by their nature, have a stressful life and that moving them around may add to their problems.
“They’re moving them all over the place and they’re stressing them,” she said. “When we get overtired, we often get a cold. When a bee does, they do too.”
It costs about $250 to purchase the hives, protective garments and other materials needed to get started in beekeeping. Fighting off deadly mites is an ongoing problem, and the application of pesticides is required to keep hives for long periods. Jean Vose said she knows one beekeeper who refuses to use pesticides and, as a result, his hives die off every two years.
“Gone are the days when you could put up a hive and leave it in the field for five years and you’d come back and there would still be bees. Those days are gone forever, but the good news is people are keeping bees in the suburbs and people are keeping bees in the country here in Maine,” she said. “I’m fascinated by bees. It’s the most exciting culture I’ve ever seen. They’ve been around a lot longer than we all have.”