June 24, 2018
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Keeping bees is a great New Year’s resolution

By Peter Cowin, Special to the BDN

2016 has proven to be quite a year for my household and my bees.

A lot of lessons were learned early this year by myself and many Maine beekeepers as we discovered a higher than normal loss of hives, despite the mild winter. This was because the warm fall of 2015 allowed the re-establishment of parasitic mites in hives that had already been treated in the fall. I was determined this year to keep treating for mites until well into the fall. I will know if this paid off in a few more months.

It was great to see the number of new beekeepers in the region this year. Many of the “newbees” had taken a class with me earlier in the winter or spring. I love getting first-timers in to pick up their bees. Such excitement on bee pick-up day. This year customers picked up from me hundreds of packages of bees and nucleus colonies. This is a welcome boost to the environment all over the state.

While I am immensely proud to have helped establish so many new honeybee colonies this year, the fact that this was all achieved with my house — and business — move right in the middle of it made it all the more remarkable.

Moving house or even moving a business can be challenging. Add to that the challenge of moving about 100 developing honeybee colonies and you start to get the scope of the planning required.

Moving to Main Road South in Hampden has allowed much more room for my bees. I’m still in the midst of some renovations in the barn where I have my store. It’s still in a bit of a mess. But by spring I should have a honey kitchen and a fully stocked beekeeping supply store where you can pick up honey and all kinds of beekeeping equipment. The big warm barn also will host some of my beekeeping classes this spring. While the Adult Ed classes I’m doing all over the region this winter/spring are great and a convenient and inexpensive way to learn beekeeping basics, the “hands-on” classes run at my house are more suited to some of my students.

I also rented out quite a few of my hives this year to pollinate the blueberries. Moving hives for pollination and the care and protection from bears required is a lot of extra work. Having said that, pollination is the most important thing bees can do and knowing they are contributing so much to the farmers is very rewarding.

Spring and early summer this year saw great honey flows and hives built up honey stores very quickly. Some of my hives were storing 30 to 40 pounds per week. Collecting surplus honey is one of my other great joys in beekeeping.

Good honey flows also means an increase tendency to swarm as hives fill their brood chambers with stored food. Collecting these swarms allowed me to start more of my own hives. These along with many more hive “splits” I did in the summer increased the size of my apiaries from 20 something to 60 something colonies by midsummer.

The drought in late summer and fall meant that many plant species such as goldenrod were not able to produce nectar. As a result we had very poor honey flows in the region in all but the swampiest locations. This meant I had to feed all those new small hives so they wouldn’t starve over the winter. My larger hives already stored plenty earlier in the year.

As usual I treated my hives for mites in late summer, but as winter approached I continued my mite treatments. At this point I used oxalic acid vaporization, which involves heating a small dose of the substance inside the hive and confining the vapors inside for 10 minutes. The use of oxalic acid has only recently been approved for use in Maine. I was quite shocked to see just how many mites the treatment killed in hives I had only treated weeks before. This late buildup of mites is what kills so many hives. I am hopeful that, with this new tool in our arsenal, many fewer hives will be lost to mites in future.

2016 was also a great step-up year for the beekeeping club at Hampden Academy. Several of last year’s seniors, founder members of the club have left taking their newfound love of bees with them. One has even gone on to establish a beekeeping club, “Bee the Change” at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. This year we had a large influx of freshmen into the club who’s numbers swelled to more than 20. Despite the dry weather the club hives produced about 70 pounds of honey and several pounds of beeswax. Funds raised by the club’s sales of honey and other products are going back into growing the club and a number of worthy projects, which I will write about in future.

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 or email him at petercowin@tds.net.


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