Most years, I send two to four hives to various small-scale, organic blueberry growers in the region to pollinate their fields. Generally, adding honey bees will increase the yield of blueberries by 1,000 pounds of berries per hive per acre.
Bumblebees and native bee species are actually better suited to this work, as they have evolved together. They work in the cold and the wind.
Honey bees on the other hand, don’t like to work unless the temperature is above 55 degrees. They don’t like the wind, either.
This means honey bees may not be able to fly every day they are on the fields. But they more than make up for this lack of working hours with their huge numbers of bees per hive.
As I have grown my number of hives, I will be sending a lot more bees out to work the blueberries this year. I’ll be sending them to small-scale organic growers, which means they won’t be sprayed with pesticides and generally have a better diversity of food available because of small field sizes and more mixed vegetation nearby.
This means I will need to have more than 50 hives ready to go by the end of this month. That will be quite a change for my spring routine.
Those of you who regularly read my column or have heard one of my talks will know I am very concerned about the decline of pollinators and especially concerned with the decline of honey bees. Wherever I can, I try to inform people of the problems pollinators are facing and what humans can do to help.
Most of North America’s thousands of species of pollinators are in decline. The rusty patched bumblebee is the first of these to go onto the endangered species list.
The honey bee is not native to North America, but our method of cultivating the bulk of our food depends upon them. With colony losses running nationally at between 29 percent and 50 percent each year, we are continuously having to run just to stand still by splitting our colonies to replace winter losses.
Commercially managed honey bee colonies — which make up more than three quarters of the 2.75 million honey bee colonies in the country — face many more stresses than we backyard beekeepers do.
Commercial colonies are trucked for thousands of miles, are exposed to pesticides and have to cope with a very limited variety in their diet. They are in such close proximity to each other that parasites and diseases spread rapidly. This makes the colonies stressed and far more susceptible to viruses brought in by mites.
It would be far better for the bees if there were hundreds of thousands of new backyard beekeepers with one or two hives than having dozens more beekeepers with 10,000 hives.
Backyard beekeepers can give their colonies individual attention. They are more isolated from each other, which means lower rates of parasite and disease transmission. I think one of the biggest benefits is that each beekeeper has a slightly different way of caring for and treating their bees.
This diversity is key in being sure the same problem won’t affect all beehives in the same way.
While relative isolation and diversity are key advantages, the big problem is that not all backyard beekeepers are doing what they need to do to control parasitic mites. Many misguidedly assume they can select for tougher bees by not treating, and they just end up with dead bees. They also need to heed the advice of experienced beekeepers who are finding that regular monitoring for mites and more frequent treatment will radically improve survival prospects.
During the past four years, I have been giving many beekeeping classes at my Hampden honeybee farm and in adult education program. In fact, last month I taught my 1,000th student.
This summer, my classes are being extended to a younger audience. In July, I am teaming up with Camp Beech Cliff on Mount Desert Island to give a summer beekeeping camp for fourth- to seventh-graders.
This camp is being sponsored by the Rockland company Brio Promotions. The company’s owners, Jeffrey and Marli Thibodeau, are aware of the problems facing honeybees and other pollinators and are concerned about the impact of their decline on the local environment. They wanted to put some of the profits from their business into projects that promoted beekeeping and enable more people to take up the activity. They contacted me to help them identify suitable projects in the region.
It is very gratifying to know that while not everyone can be beekeepers to help the honeybees, there are those prepared to help with their generosity and inspiration. Jeff and Marli are also supporting other beekeeping projects such as the Hampden Academy beekeeping club and a new beekeeping group being started at Ellsworth High School.
If you are wondering what you can do to help honeybees, you can contact me directly. You can keep a hive of your own, sponsor a hive or simply plant wildflowers free of pesticides and stop putting herbicide on your lawn to kill weeds such as dandelions and clover, two of the most important plants for bees in our state.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org or 299-6948.