PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Karen Lajoie is trying mightily to keep the bees at the SAD 1 school farm alive over the winter — without letting them make a mess.
Some northern beekeepers take their hives south to seek relief from harsh winters. Others just accept a high rate of death and buy new bees each year. But honey bees can overwinter well in northern Maine, even outside, Lajoie said.
This is the second year the school farm has overwintered a bee colony, a practice spearheaded by Lajoie, a fisheries biologist by training.
“The hive we overwintered was one the best hives we’ve ever had,” she said. “They thrived.”
The trouble is where to put them. Last winter, the farm had the colony in a heated building, which left a mess. “They come out and start flying everywhere and mess up all the walls, just like any fly,” Lajoie said.
“We thought about putting them in a greenhouse, because it’s warm in there, but they’d start flying around. That wouldn’t be good when the classes come.”
Instead, they’re keeping the hives inside an unheated building (the newest structure at the 39 acre farm). The hives will stay on a trailer, and the bees will still be somewhat cold — and not so active — but protected from the elements, Lajoie said.
The cold isn’t necessarily the main problem for overwintering bees, however. “What really kills them is when the heat and the cold combine, when the spring hits,” Lajoie said.
To try to prevent the worst of those cold, wet conditions in the hives, Lajoie is insulating and covering them with crumpled newspaper to absorb the moisture.
Most beekeepers try to keep their hives over winter, “with varying degrees of success,” said Peter Cowin, a beekeeper in Hampden also known as The Bee Whisperer.
“In most years a healthy hive, treated for mites, would stand an 80 percent chance or better.” But last winter was hard on smaller hives with maybe a 50 percent loss, he said.
Others like Lajoie have tackled the cold and dampness with newspaper as an absorbent. Dried oak leaves and pine needles also work, as well as a Homasote fiber wall board or sound insulation board, which Cowin uses in his hives.
Another challenge in overwintering is making sure bees have enough food into the spring — especially this year, after many honey bees were out and about in December.
“Bees have flown on far more days than is normal,” Cowin said. “That means they have already used a lot more food than normal, and I see late winter/spring starvation killing many hives that are not checked.”
Lajoie said that the honey harvest at the school farm last year was good, with a fair amount of honey left for the bees to subsist on through the winter and spring.