Though I write this column during yet another “clipper” snowstorm, there are clear signs of the impending spring. The sap is starting to flow in the maple trees, the days are longer and the weather forecast is saying days in the 40s rather than below freezing.
I don’t appear to have lost any more hives this winter but at least half of them are feeding on the sugar candy I put into them in January and February. These colonies would have starved had I not added the extra food.
This spring looks like it may be very challenging for beekeeping beginners who have ordered packaged bees to start their hives in April. New colonies started with packages have no honey stores and rely totally upon the sugar syrup we give them for food until the nectar flow starts. Usually in fine weather the novice beekeeper can simply feed the bees with an entrance feeder of syrup; one part sugar to one part water. In cold weather (below 55 degrees), however, the bees need to stay clustered together for warmth and cannot take advantage of the feeder even though it is only inches below them. In the event of cold weather during or after installation, the answer is to have the food above the warm cluster of bees.
The “baggie” method is the most reliable way to insure the food is warm and accessible to the bees, but it must be done with care. This is a two quart plastic bag about two-thirds full of sugar syrup placed on top of the honeycombs where the bees are clustering. When the bag is laying flat, two incisions about 3-4 inches long are made on the top layer of the bag being very careful not to puncture the lower layer of the bag. Done correctly, the syrup will puddle at the top of the bag and bees will soon cover the bag and start to drink up the syrup which is kept warm by the cluster of bees below. Alternatively, an inverted pail or bottles of syrup with perforations in the lid are placed directly over the cluster. These containers are housed in an empty hive body placed around them before adding the covers to the hive. Once that warm weather arrives however, the colonies will grow incredibly quickly with their young queens laying as many as 3,000 eggs per day.
I have been giving a lot of talks to schools and groups about honeybees and the importance of pollinators. I particularly enjoyed my talks last week at Leonard Middle School in Old Town and Hermon Middle school where both are planning gardens with pollinator areas. Part of my talks point out the difficulty honeybees face with parasites and pesticides to deal with a problem particularly acute for hives of commercial beekeepers who move them from monoculture to monoculture. Even backyard beekeepers are increasingly dealing with colonies which are losing forage habitat and diversity as more folks turn their lawns from a dinner table for bees of dandelions and clover into green grassy deserts. Bees thrive with a rich and diverse food supply. A varied food supply helps colonies to raise healthy young and to fight ailments such as parasitic mites and the bacteria and viruses they bring in and even helps the colony overcome other stresses caused by weather and pesticides.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “If bees should disappear from the face of the Earth, mankind would follow within four years.” Pollinators are so important to our food supply that it makes sense for us to do everything we can to reverse their decline.
I am encouraging people, schools, businesses and towns to plant Bee Friendly Zones where pesticides and herbicides are not used and instead a rich variety of pollinator foods are planted. If you do need a weed-free grassy lawn, then please set aside an area for pollinators like honeybees. I have had my own Bee Friendly seed packets made up for just this purpose and for schools and clubs to use for fund raisers.
From April 4-6, I am looking forward to being a speaker at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the BDN Maine Garden Show at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. I also will have a booth at the event with Penobscot County and Maine State Beekeepers Associations. If you are interested in helping honeybees, or would like to get started keeping honeybees, come and have a chat.
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, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 299-6948.