Hampden man teaching newcomers art of beekeeping

Peter Cowin set up hives to pollinate surrounding crops and flowers in Hampden. Cowin said 60,000 hives are brought to Maine each spring to help pollinate crops.
Courtesy of Peter Cowin
Peter Cowin set up hives to pollinate surrounding crops and flowers in Hampden. Cowin said 60,000 hives are brought to Maine each spring to help pollinate crops.
Posted Jan. 30, 2013, at 8:16 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 04, 2013, at 3:04 p.m.
These honeybee hives have been insulated and wrapped to withstand the Maine winter after having been checked to make sure the bees have plenty of honey for food until spring.
Courtesy of Peter Cowin
These honeybee hives have been insulated and wrapped to withstand the Maine winter after having been checked to make sure the bees have plenty of honey for food until spring.

HAMPDEN, Maine — The man known as “the bee whisperer” is going to have to talk a little louder as he goes from the field to the classroom to teach people about beekeeping.

“This is new to adult ed and new to me,” said Peter Cowin, a 53-year-old Hampden resident who got back into beekeeping full time when he returned to Maine in 2002 after living in England for more than 30 years. “I’ve taught people about beekeeping either one on one or just with informal talks at schools, but this will be the first time I’ve done it in a classroom environment.”

Cowin will teach beekeeping at adult education classes in Orono and Hampden beginning this week.

Cowin said he has been beekeeping “on and off” since he was 11, but gave it up when he moved to England to attend school. He earned a degree in zoology from Newcastle University in England.

Nowadays, Cowin is president of BioEdge, a company that makes and distributes fishing attractants that can be applied to lures, but he’s known more for his involvement with bees than fish.

“I’m very excited about these classes. I could talk about bees all winter long, but I’m very keen on getting more people into beekeeping,” Cowin said. “There are less beekeepers now than there were 30 years ago, and we’re more dependent on bees now than we’ve ever been in terms of pollination.”

Cowin estimates he is one of fewer than a dozen people in the state qualified to remove feral (wild) bee hives. He said he is also one of even fewer who are fully insured to do so.

“Basically, about 80 percent of the food we have on our dinner tables is a result of pollination by honeybees,” he said. “Right now about 60,000 bee colonies — about 2 ½ million bees — are brought to Maine annually every spring for pollination of various crops.”

Cowin said the decline in beekeepers in Maine over the last three decades is largely due to the onset of a parasitic mite that kills bees.

“Roughly 30 years ago, there were relatively few conditions that wiped out bees, but sometime roughly 20 or so years ago, this mite came along and hives started dying,” he said. “It became so rampant, a lot of beekeepers gave up their hives and businesses because it became such a struggle.”

Interest is on the upswing now, however, as more treatments and remedies are available to kill those mites and other diseases afflicting bees.

That interest led officials from Orono and Hampden Adult Education to contact Cowin and ask him to teach a class.

Classes will be offered beginning Tuesday, Feb. 5, in Orono at Orono High School on Goodridge Road and Thursday, Feb. 7, in Hampden at Reeds Brook Middle School. The four-week sessions will include a weekly class (7 to 8:30 p.m.) from Feb. 5 through March 5 and Feb. 7 through March 7. Sessions are $30 per person and can be signed up for by calling 866-4119 or going online at http://orono-hampden.maineadulted.org.

“They will know what they need to do to get started, what materials they need and how much it will cost to do it by the time they finish the classes, and they’ll also learn about all the byproducts of beekeeping besides honey, like hand creams and lip balms,” Cowin said.

The recent stretches of warm weather have given Cowin, who has 17 hives of his own, more to do.

“This time of year, I’m getting equipment ready that is used over the summer and cleaning things up, but whenever we get some warm days, I get inside the hives to check them, particularly to see if they have enough food stores [honey] to get the bees through the rest of the winter,” he said. “They can very easily starve to death.”

Some hives can have more than 100 pounds of honey stored in their honeycombs.

If he finds the honey stores in some hives too low, Cowin will add a layer of newspaper with an inch of granulated sugar on it for them to eat or he’ll add honey from hives that have died out for other reasons.

“Two of mine died despite having plenty of honey, maybe because the queen was old and didn’t survive long into the winter,” he said.

Cowin is hoping this winter continues to be average, or below average in coldness, and that it’s a very warm spring.

“Depending on the season and the weather, I can get 100 pounds of honey per hive,” he said. “Of the 10 hives I had running most of last year, I collected 600 pounds of honey.”

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