Though I have grown very tired of shoveling snow this winter, I have been very grateful that this deep white blanket has been sheltering my hives from the worst of the cold and wind.

This past weekend, we had our first day above freezing for over a month, and I took the opportunity to expose the fronts of my deeply buried hives. Some had little ice caves melted in the snow from the warm air escaping from the hive’s entrance. As I dug I could hear the very low buzz coming from some of the hives as the bees generate heat by vibrating their bodies. I prefer the nearly silent hives that have the ability to keep warm enough with the absolute minimum of activity (and hence usage of food stores). As soon as the sun was able to shine on the hives, a few bees were poking their faces out the door to see if spring had arrived. Sadly not, but it’s coming!

As the air temperature nears 40 degrees and the sun beats down on the hives, the bees will start to take quick cleansing flights. For a brief time there can be very substantial bee activity in front of the hive. Once they have had their cleansing flights, they usually start to drag out the dead bodies of their sisters who did not make it through the previous cold spell. Whilst this can be a sad sight, it also is a sign that this is a hive that is doing well and so far has made it through the winter. The more hives I see like that the better.

Those hives that make it to spring will be my breeding stock for this year. My aim is to split many of those hives into numerous small “nucleus” colonies that will be headed by queens, which I propose raise from the very best of the over-wintered hives.

In late April, we will be bringing more than 200 3-pound packages of bees up from the south to start new colonies in Maine. More than 80 percent of these are already sold. There is a huge number of new enthusiasts starting beekeeping this year. These packages, which cost $125 each, contain a queen bee and about 12,000 worker bees. It is very quick and easy to install those bees into a new beehive, which is made up of a bottom board, a deep super (box) that contains 10 frames and wax foundation for the bees to build their honeycombs on. This is topped with an inner cover and an outer, telescopic cover.

Then the bees will just need feeding while they build their combs and raise lots of babies to build up their number. In about 40-50 days they will need their second box of frames and foundation added. Feeding is continued till both boxes are filled with comb. The whole set-up costs about $190 plus the bees.

Having your own honeybees is such a great way to be in touch with nature. Working with bees you can see so clearly the link between our environment and our effect upon it. How weather affects both the plants and the pollinators and ultimately the yield from our gardens or farms. I love to work with the bees in the spring when the colonies are building up so fast, building comb, bringing in nectar and pollen of all kinds of colors. The hive hums with life quite literally.

At the end of the summer, the year can be measured in how many pounds of surplus honey the bees have made. Most of my production hives (not the ones I split to make nucleus colonies) make between 40 and 80 pounds of honey surplus to the 100 pounds or so they’ll keep for the winter. I’ve had some that make in excess of 200 pounds, a fine reward indeed for just providing them a home free of pests.

At the time of writing, I have already had 97 students this season in the first four of my 15 beekeeping classes. This is a very good sign for bees, the environment, and for all of us who depend on the food crops their bees will pollinate.

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.