Randy Martin, executive director of the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District, demonstrates how to insert a new nucleus of bees into a hive at the recent meeting of Aroostook County Beekeepers in Easton. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

EASTON, Maine — In Aroostook County, where numerous commercial crops depend on bees for pollination, the insects face a lot of perils, even cellphone towers.

Jonas Swartzentruber, who hosted a session at his Easton farm on keeping bee colonies alive, was left with just two hives alive out of 14 at winter’s end.

Bees and other pollinators — butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, ants, bats and hummingbirds — are crucial to crops like squash, almonds, avocados, apples and berries. Pollinating Maine’s wild blueberry crop alone takes more than 45,000 hives containing 1.4 billion bees, State Apiarist Jennifer Lund reported on realmaine.com. With many losing at least half their hives during the winter, County beekeepers are concerned about how to help Maine’s bee population thrive.

Even cellphones have become a problem, said Randy Martin, executive director of the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District and owner of The King’s Gardener in Presque Isle. With cell towers in so many places, there are constant vibrations in the air. Martin’s theory is that the waves disrupt bees’ homing instincts.

“In my observation, cellphones mess bees up,” Martin said. “They fly out to forage. The cell waves disrupt them, and they can’t find their way home. They die.”

Research has suggested that radiofrequency radiation from cellphones alters bee behavior and reproductive cycles. A 2009 study by Swiss researcher Daniel Favre ​​concluded honeybees exposed to cell phone radiation are likely to be confused and even fail to return to the hive, according to Natural Society.

But data gathered so far are insufficient to conclude that cellphone transmissions harm bees, said the American Bee Journal. Honey bees do have ferromagnetic crystals in their abdomens and worker bees may use this information to help navigate, but there’s no good reason to suspect cell towers will harm bees at this point, the journal said.

Impending climate changes are part of the problem, but so are pesticides and disease, Martin said.

The warmer and wetter weather for Maine can lead to winters with a lot of temperature swings. Periods of thaw followed by freezing lead to condensation.

“Moisture is the No. 1 killer of bees in the wintertime,” Martin said.

He recommended insulating hives by covering them with hay, blue foam or even sheep fleece to try to keep them at a constant temperature. Hay or wool can breathe and will allow moisture to escape.

Bees are also subject to diseases, like colony collapse disorder in which worker bees die off or disappear, and mites including tracheal mites that can feast on bees from the inside. Martin recommended menthol — like a cough drop — be placed in hives because it will kill the mites.

Pesticides are a big threat, Martin said. Chemicals called neonicotinoids are among those used to treat crops, including potatoes. But they kill bees, too. When growers spray pesticides, droplets are released into the air and are taken up by bees.

Bee enthusiasts from Madawaska to Houlton shared advice on how to help colonies survive the cold months during the Aroostook County Beekeepers meeting held May 7. That’s why the group is important, Swartzentruber said, because keepers have their own methods and sharing what works will benefit everyone.

Martin, who has kept bees for more than 40 years, offered tips and demonstrated some hive components, including a smoker to keep bees calm when handling them, for those new to beekeeping.

Even those who aren’t keepers can help, he said, by planting bee-friendly plants, like a plot of wildflowers, on their property.

Rod Hemingway of Houlton and Gary Ballanger of Bancroft have each kept bees for more than 40 years. Both insulate their hives during the winter and create some ventilation at the tops or bottoms of the hives.

Ballanger said the varieties of bees brought in to start hives are important, and suggested keepers select bees appropriate for the local environment.

“We have to look at how we’re challenging our bees,” Ballanger said. “We know they’re not from here. Northern varieties do better in this climate.”

Beekeepers introduce tens of thousands of  bees into the environment each season, adding new colonies to those preserved from the last season. Bees don’t hibernate, but the hive stays active throughout the winter to protect the queen. And when spring comes, she begins laying eggs.  

First-time beekeepers included Steve Wimmer and Rob Barnett of Stockholm, who inherited some hives from a friend. Both said they came to learn.

“I want to try to find my way around it [beekeeping],” Barnett said. “If we can successfully try to winter them, that’s good, but I’d rather learn how they live first.”

Mattie Hui of Madawaska saw Swartzentruber’s bee setup at the recent Top O’ Maine Trade Show and was fascinated.

“I do see bees on my farm,” she said. “But I thought, what can I do to help conserve the ecosystem?” She said she decided to try raising her own colony.

 

Aroostook County Beekeepers is affiliated with the Maine State Beekeepers Association and has been active for about three years. Its next meeting will be held July 9.