BEE WHISPERER'S DIARY

Spring an exciting time for bees, keepers

Posted April 23, 2014, at 7:23 a.m.

It was a great turnout at the BDN Maine Garden Show and particularly pleasing to have so many people come to our Penobscot County Beekeepers Association booth. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to say hello or to buy some of my honey, bee-friendly seeds, etc.

Thanks also to those members of PCBA who gave up their weekend to talk and talk and talk. I certainly will plan to be there again next year.

It is exciting just how fast things start to happen with the bees once spring starts. The bees are out most days now bringing in the pollen they need to raise young. There isn’t too much nectar out there yet, but once those beautiful dandelions start blooming the bees will really be excited.

Over the next two months, thousands of new honeybee colonies will be being started up in Maine, many by hugely excited first-time beekeepers determined to help our state insect by providing them with more safe homes.

During April and May, many of these new colonies will be started with three-pound packages of bees. These bees have been raised in southern states such as Georgia and North Carolina where spring arrived a couple of months ago. Each three pound package contains about 12,000 bees, a can of sugar syrup to feed them on their journey, and a young queen bee who is held in a special cage. The queen cage is a way to slowly introduce the young queen to her new subjects. She is not their mother but rather was raised separately in a commercial queen rearing yard. The cage allows for her smell to mix with the smell of her subjects for several days, otherwise they would treat her like any other invader and kill her. The queen cage is a little screen and wood royal boudoir with a cork door at both ends. At one end of the cage the exit is blocked by about 1 inch of soft sugar candy. It takes the bees a few days to eat their way through the candy. That’s enough time for the scents of queen and her new subjects to mix so that when she is released she is accepted as their own.

Once released, the queen, a remarkable egg-laying machine, will now get on with laying thousands of eggs per day. In fact, when she gets going, she lays more than her own body weight in eggs every day for months.

In three weeks, those eggs will hatch into worker bees and the new colony will grow in number from little more than 10,000 to as many as 70,000 or even 100,000. Overseeing this growth of their colonies is such a joyous experience for the beekeeper. There is little more amazing or inspiring than opening the beehive on a warm sunny day while tens of thousands of bees go about their busy routine. They hardly seem to notice you are there observing and admiring them.

May will also see one of the great honeybee migrations take place into our state. After California, Maine brings in more honeybees than any other state. Their job is to pollinate the blueberries. Last year we brought in more than 75,000 colonies — that’s more than 3 billion bees. Blueberry growers pay between $100 and $140 per hive to have them there for about four weeks. This annual investment in pollinators pays off handsomely as the crop is increased by 1,000 pounds of berries per hive, per acre. Hundreds of trucks carrying hundreds of hives apiece make their way up Interstate 95 each spring. More than a few will stop at Dysart’s restaurant and truck stop in Hermon for a rest. While the driver tucks in to have some “buttery flakey crust,” some bees fly out from under their net cover to explore their new surroundings. When the driver returns to his truck and heads down east, thousands of bees are sometimes left behind. With no queen or colony these bees are certain to die unless they find a new home.

Last year, Tim Dysart allowed me to place a couple of my swarm traps around the parking lot. The traps are small foam beehives baited with some old comb and lemongrass oil which mimics the scent of the queen bee. Within days the boxes were filling with stranded honeybees which were relocated to my bee yards and given a new queen in much the same way as we do with the packages. It costs about $150 between new equipment, queens and feeding the bees every time I start a new hive but in the end they reward me with honey and the joy of watching one of nature’s most impressive creations.

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 petercowin@tds.net or call 299-6948.

 

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