Even before I bought my first package of honeybees at the age of 11 I had a great admiration for them. How tens of thousands of individuals with brains the size of a pinhead can work at separate tasks yet collectively act as one superorganism amazed me.
Keeping bees in those days was relatively simple. They needed almost no help from me. I made sure to give them lots of room in the spring and summer and took off lots of honey in the fall.
These days it is a lot more complicated, with parasitic mites and colony collapse disorder claiming up to half the nation’s bees in a single winter. The problem has been particularly acute among commercial bee operators who truck their bees from one monoculture to the next to pollinate them. Hobbyists fare much better, and given a little bit of know-how and taking a bit of time to care for the bees, most hives live and produce a good surplus of honey.
The big variable is what weather Mother Nature is going to throw at us. That’s why after weeks of bitterly cold weather it was so good to see my girls stretching their wings this month when the weather broke. Thousands of bees took flight on those relatively warm sunny days in the 40s. Honeybees don’t hibernate, but instead, the colony of bees, which may number 20,000-30,000 in the fall, clusters together and generates a surprising amount of heat. All will work vibrating their muscles and despite the outside temperature dropping to subzero, the center of the cluster can reach temperatures as high as 98 degrees. At these temperatures it is warm enough for the bees to rear some young bees, or brood. This temperature regulation is the whole reason bees store honey. They will consume about 100 pounds over the winter.
This time of year, the bees are using up honey fast. As winter progresses the beekeeper needs to keep an eye on the hive’s food reserves. The beekeeper can lift the back of the hive to assess its weight. If it’s still nice and heavy, that’s great, but if it feels pretty light he may need to add some extra food by adding a fondant-like sugar patty or two into the top of the hive every week or so. Though not as good for the bees as honey, the bees will eat the patties and not starve.
As the weather warms it is easier for the bees to maintain a bigger, warmer cluster. The bigger and warmer the cluster the more brood they raise and the more they eat. This rapid colony build-up is what the beekeeper is aiming for.
If I have judged things right, among my 20 hives, then there isn’t much I can do for the bees until spring. Instead, I am busy preparing for my Beekeeping for Beginners classes. I gave my first classes with Hampden and Orono Adult Education last winter and to my delight they sold out in no time. I have always enjoyed helping “Newbees” get started in beekeeping. It is rewarding getting groups of 20 at a time excited about the bee lifecycle, what’s involved in keeping bees, what it costs and where to get bees and equipment. Some of my students were attending just for the love of learning about bees and beekeeping or were aware of what trouble bees are having and wanted to learn how they could help. Most of my students went on to start their first bee colonies and harvest their own honey. This year, I have been asked by Bangor, Newport and Ellsworth Adult Education to run more classes in February and March and I’ve even started an intermediate class.
One of the outcomes of helping to get so many new beekeepers started last year was we decided to start up a local chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. We started Penobscot County Beekeepers Association in April and had 20-40 beekeepers, beginners and experienced alike, getting together the last Thursday of each month to share experiences and ideas. We meet at 7 p.m. at 307 Maine Ave. in Bangor. In addition, we had many guest speakers, experts in their fields, who came to share their knowledge.
So this year there will be more classes, a growing beekeeping club and hopefully lots of bees to play with and honey to harvest. I will be chasing honeybee swarms, and removing bees who have set up home in people’s houses. I look forward to sharing all that with you as the year progresses.
Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is president of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and bee equipment and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 299-6948.