CAMDEN — The long, cold, wet winter has been followed by a long, cold, wet spring, but most of the honeybees at the Edwards Apiary in Camden successfully overwintered, and have been busy increasing their numbers and stretching their wings when the weather permits.
There have been successes, but there have also been mistakes and failures, and that's why I went back to bee school for a second year this spring, bringing along four friends interested in learning about bees. We have graduated from the class, and some of us are back at the beekeeping, either with existing hives, new hives or a combination of both.
It's now May, and according to the "A Year in the Beehive" calendar, it's time to install new nucleus hives, which are mini colonies and one way to obtain a new hive of bees. With temperatures staying in the 50s during the days, Maine beekeepers can give new and overwintered hives their first gallon of sugar syrup with a medication for dysentery, a common problem for bees that have spent a winter cooped up in a hive, "holding it."
For the uninitiated, honeybees don't hibernate or burrow into the ground like other insects. They remain inside their hive, either natural or manmade, in a cluster around the queen. They "shiver" their bodies to create heat, and when the bees on the inside of the cluster get too hot and the bees on the outside get cold, they alternate positions. The inside of the cluster works to maintain a constant temperature of around 92 degrees Fahrenheit.
On mild winter days, the bees will break cluster to feed on their stored honey, and the cluster will move as a group over new sources as temperatures inside the hive permit. They will also take "cleansing flights" these days, because bees don't "poop" inside the hive.
They usually start out the winter in the bottom of two boxes, with the upper box chock full of stored honey. By spring, the lower box is usually empty of food, brood and bees, as the cluster has moved up and taken up residence in the upper box, consuming the honey around them.
Being May, many of us have also already begun checking the queen's performance and inspected the hives, checking for signs of brood disease and counting for Varroa mite infestation. The Varroa mite is the one pest that can create a host of problems for bees, as they weaken the colony and make them more susceptible to viruses and other issues.
It's a busy time for both new and current beekeepers, as spring is also the time to begin thinking about managing colonies for population buildup and swarm prevention. We'll be in the thick of that along with others, as our two overwintered hives are growing at a steady pace and we will want to try to remain a step ahead of them when they begin to feel pinched in their digs and consider splitting their numbers, with half the colony and the old queen flying off during the first stretch of hot weather. They will leave behind eggs from which the other half will raise a new queen, and begin the cycle anew.
Last fall, my husband, Dave, and I closed the beekeeping season with three hives buttoned up for the winter in the backyard, and a fourth colony inside our home in a glass observation hive. We jumped into beekeeping last spring, when Dave signed us up for the Knox-Lincoln County Beekeepers club bee school as a Valentine's Day present.
We attended the first of six classes March 5, 2013, and signed up to purchase two nucleus colonies of spring 2013 bees during that first class. School wrapped up April 16, 2013, and we kept busy, like expectant parents, building the six hive boxes and assembling the 60 frames we would need to house our new guests. We ordered tools and equipment and purchased 25-pound bags of cane sugar, which we would feed our new bees to stimulate their wax production. The hive can't survive without honeycomb in which they store pollen and nectar, cured honey and raise their young, which begin as tiny eggs, then grow into larvae and eventually pupate into a new bee.
After school, we spent every Saturday morning attending hive openings of other club members. We also took advantage of each and every offer to take a look in our mentors’ 12 hives, which was very educational.
It was a blast. And we learned a lot. We saw all kinds of colonies – strong ones, weak ones, queenless ones and dying ones. We saw newly caught swarms and newly installed packages, as well as watched as hives were split into two and blended into one, and new queens were being introduced.
Nights we immersed ourselves in movies and documentaries and short videos about bees and beekeeping across the ages and around the world. We learned how they raise bees in Russia, Uzbekistan, the U.K. and Poland, and we continue to learn many things from the Fat Bee Man and DC Honeybees, both beekeepers who post videos on YouTube about raising bees, catching swarms, extracting honey and processing beeswax.
Our bees were late to arrive last spring in Maine from deep down south, and when they did we were forced onto a steep learning curve to keep ahead of them. Our bees arrived May 28, 2013, heavily infested with small hive beetles, beetle larvae and lots of Varroa mites, all of which we had to manage to help the colony as they got accustomed to their new home. We lost a queen, likely because the hive swarmed and we didn't know it, and then we had another swarm mid-season.
But that later swarm my neighbor called me about, and I rushed home mid-day and scrambled to figure out how to reclaim it out of my cedar tree before it took off for a new permanent home. I succeeded in capturing and rehiving the swarm, and they took to their new home, located just 10 feet from their old home.
In the fall, we adopted a small colony of bees from a fellow club member in Rockland. Her first colony would likely not make it through the winter due to their small numbers. We killed the old queen and gave them a new one, and hoped she would build up their numbers. However, this colony would not have to worry about being cold or having enough food, because two weeks later they were moved on their frames into a glass observation hive and installed in an upstairs bedroom in our house. A plastic tube provided them access to the outside until the weather turned too cold, and then on sunny, 50-degree days, they could venture out for cleansing flights.
The observation hive provided us with hours of free entertainment, as we watched bees hatching and bees feeding each other. It was always a good night when we saw the queen out walking around, being fed by her attendants or laying eggs before she slowed down in the dead of winter. It also provided us an opportunity to introduce many friends to bees in a safe and comfortable environment.
Nearing the end of September, our three outdoor hives had each stored a little more than the 60-80 pounds of honey they would need to eat throughout the winter. So we were able to harvest some frames of the honey and bottle it up for ourselves. After playing around with three different manual honey extraction methods, we ended up harvesting a total of 15.5 pounds. Not bad for our first year.
As fall continued to creep in and the nights began to get cooler, it was time to button the girls up and prepare them for winter. We took some measures to try and get rid of as many Varroa mites as we could and encouraged them to drink a final gallon of sugar syrup mixed with the dysentery medicine. We wrapped the hives in tar paper, which meant we would not be going into the hives until spring, and wished them well.
During the winter, we kept the entrances clear of snow and checked on warm sunny days for signs of cleansing flights, which would show up as little yellow dots and dribbles in the snow. We hoped to see a little activity on those days, and we expected a few dead bees here and there, which would likely be caused by a sudden cold breeze incapacitating them and sending them to the frozen ground.
All signs looked good until March 8. It was a warm clear blue sky day, but with lots of snow still on the ground. We could see bees flying, so we went outside to check on them and discovered bees from our two original hives making cleansing flights, but all was quiet at the swarm hive.
I gave it a good bang, to see if I could hear them begin to hum, and there was silence. We tore open the tar paper and discovered, to our dismay, the entire colony was dead. Thousands of bees were still inside, many of them dead on the frames, with their little bee butts sticking out of the cells.
Starvation was likely the killer, but the cold was the cause. It's likely this colony could not break the cluster to move closer to the food, which was just an inch away from some of the dead bees. We knew from school and videos the other things that kill overwintered colonies, such as foulbrood and sack brood, but we found no such evidence of virus and felt just a little better.
Even so, I stood there in silence, unable to say a thing, while Dave swept the bees off the frames into a sick, black pile on the snow. We brought the frames that were still full of capped honey into the house and stored the hive boxes and lids in the shed. I curled up on the couch and took a nap, and Dave went upstairs, climbed into bed, and did the same. I realized that night we were mourning.
Two days earlier I had started bee school for a second year, bringing with me five new students, including Rockport Police Chief Mark Kelley, Aldermere Farm Manager Ron Howard, Camden Public Works employee Keryn Annis, and Simonton Corner residents Tom and Nancy Cox.
Kelley spends his free time on tiny Wood Island, off Grand Manan, with five or six other families, and we had been talking over the winter about introducing bees to help pollenate the blueberries that grow wild on it, among other things. Howard's in-laws own and run Brodis Blueberries, and he wanted to learn more about bees and beekeeping to better understand the importance of bees as pollenaters of blueberry fields. Annis has been raising bees for many years, with some successes and some frustrations, and he wanted to learn what he was doing right and what he was doing wrong. Tom Cox had a hive more than three decades ago and it died after a couple of years, and so he was game to give it a go again, but with more knowledge than he had the first time. Nancy Cox wanted to learn too, and she has been working beside Tom with their hives since day one.
As I write this update on May 7, Dave and I are actively managing six hives, and waiting for the call to pick up two new nucleus colonies in the coming weeks. The observation hive colony has been moved back into a box hive and returned to its original home in Rockland. Annis has been busy tending to one overwintered hive and a new package colony. The Coxes are the doting keepers of a pair of new package colonies. Howard has been busy burning the Brodis’ blueberrry barrens but keeping up with the bees via email and Kelley is on hold, as we learned that bees cannot be brought into Canada from Maine, but must either be purchased there are shipped from Australia, a minor setback to the introduction of bees on Wood Island.
Our two original hives are bustling with life and activity, and we installed three new packages of bees, two at Aldermere Farm and one at Erickson Fields Preserve, both located in Rockport and managed by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. We also took over managing an overwintered hive at Erickson, so by the end of May we will have eight hives to manage.
If that wasn't enough, next weekend our bee club is holding its monthly meeting at our house, where we'll be digging into our overwintered hives and considering whether we need to split one or both into two more hives.
If all goes well, the Edwards Apiary will comprise 10 hives going into the summer.
As for what we beekeepers do in the summer, with a combination of overwintered hives and new colonies, there will be no shortage of challenges. The new hives will be busy finishing the work of drawing out honeycomb on the new frames we gave them, and the overwintered hives will be focusing on growing their numbers and making honey.
While it was sad to lose the swarm hive, they gave our new bees 20 frames of drawn comb and capped honey to share. The drawn comb will allow the new queens to begin laying eggs right away, and we will be able to swap out new frames of honey with the stored honey, allowing us to harvest honey sooner.
We have already begun the season with the new colonies facing challenges, as a queen in one of the new packages disappeared a week after the colony was established, and a new queen we introduced to the overwintered colony at Erickson has disappeared as well.
Despite the challenges, both situations have given us golden opportunities to learn more.
One option a beekeeper has in this situation is to buy a new mated queen, which costs around $30, and introduce her to the established colony. It's not a surefire solution, because the colony might not like her and kill her. The other option is to let nature take its course, which can be done if the queenless colony has eggs.
While inspecting last week, we established that the queen in the new colony laid plenty of eggs before she disappeared, and the workers quickly began rearing new queens. At last count, there were at least seven uncapped queen cups and two capped queen cells waiting to hatch.
Workers rarely raise just one new queen, and when two hatch at the same time, they will fight to win the hive. When one queen hatches ahead of the others, she will go around to her unhatched sisters and sting and kill them before they have emerged.
So this week we removed two capped queen cells from the new queenless hive and transferred them to the queenless hive at Erickson, which did not have enough viable eggs to raise their own queen. Transferring a capped queen cell into a queenless hive is something we have never done before, nor have we left a hive to its devices to raise their own.
Those are now two more things we'll be able to check off our beekeeping bucket list. For now, it's wait-and-see if both hives hatch new queens, they go out on mating flights, and come back and begin laying eggs.
I should probably mention that this weekend we are going to Northport to install swarm traps on a friend of Dave's property located near a commercial blueberry field. If we catch a swarm cast off from a commercial beekeeper’s hives, temporarily placed in the barren as the blueberries come into bloom, that means more bees.
Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-6655.