August 19, 2019
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Drought means another tough year for Maine bees

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
It was a rough year for Maine bees with drought conditions impacting their supplies of natural nectar and pollen.

Phil Gaven at The Honey Exchange in Portland found himself getting less honey from some beekeepers than in past years thanks to the drought that hit parts of Maine this year.

“We are well stocked for the holiday season,” Gaven said. “But the drought definitely impacted honey flows in pockets around the state.”

The final numbers for 2017’s Maine honey production are not known yet, but those who work with bees and with the beekeepers say it is likely down from last year.

“We are not sure what the numbers are for this year,” said Jennifer Lund, state apiculturist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Some places did really well and some did poorly because of the drought.”

[How you can help save Maine’s bees]

Lund will gather information on this past bee season via an online survey among beekeepers in April. She will tabulate the results in May and June and will present her findings for the 2017 season at the annual Maine beekeepers’ association meeting next October.

There are 1,147 registered beekeepers in Maine managing 9,853 hives, according to Lund.

The dry weather was especially tough on beekeepers in the southern part of the state, according to Richard McLaughlin, master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association.

“This year we had a drought that went for all of August and part of September and in our area we saw a short lived honey flow,” McLaughlin said. “The conditions did improve a bit late that did allow the bees to store honey for the winter.”

Most beekeepers stop taking honey from their bees in late summer so the hives have enough food to get them through the winter.

This winter, McLaughlin predicted, there will be a lot of hungry bees where conditions never improved enough for them to produce enough for themselves. In those instances, beekeepers feed the bees all winter with special mixtures of sugar and water.

[Keeping backyard hives benefits bees, humans]

Lund said in some parts of the state the drought extended into the fall, which produced lovely and warm late summerlike conditions for humans, but was very stressful for bees.

“During that extended fall the bees’ forage foods had dried up,” Lund said. “Because there was so little rain there was no nector to bring back to the hive to make honey and the bees started breaking into their winter supplies [and] the bees were going out expending energy without bringing food back.”

In a normal year, according to Lund, there are three major honey flows. One in the spring when flowering plants and trees begin to bloom, second one late summer and a third in fall.

“A lot of beekeepers use that fall flow to overwinter their bees,” she said. “That is really the last ‘pull in’ for for the bees before they shut down for the winter.”

At The Honey Exchange, Gaven would love to see a normal year.

[Drought conditions beginning to reappear in parts of Maine]

“In my own experience [because] we keep our own hives I can tell you two years ago we took 225 pounds from six hives,” he said. “This year, from those same hives we harvested 30 pounds.”

Gaven said he’s heard similar anecdotal stories from other beekeepers.

“Beekeepers who last year brought me six honey supers this year brought me two,” he said.

Supers are the individual boxes that hold the frames on which the bees produce honeycomb and honey.

Low honey production also means less bees as the queen will stop laying eggs when there is not enough nectar and pollen, according to Lund.

“It really depended where your hives were this past year,” she said. “Some did much better than others in pockets all over.”

[It’s summer, time to battle the bees … or wasps … or whatever]

For now, beekeepers like Gaven are stocking up on white sugar and preparing for a winter of cooking for and feeding their bees.

“It’s another difficult year for bees in Maine,” he said. “Of course, beekeepers will tell you we’ve got something to worry about every season, and right now we are worrying about the coming winter.”

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