For Maine beekeepers in need of fresh colonies, it’s time to start placing those orders.

“January and February are the perfect time to order bees,” Richard McLaughlin, president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, said. “But don’t wait, as they start to get sold out quickly.”

He encourages Maine beekeepers to buy local instead of ordering through companies in southern states, since there are plenty of suppliers of live bees in the state.

Locally raised bees, he said, can be picked up directly from the beekeeper rather than shipped over several days from points south, something that can overly stress the insects.

“The nice thing about a local supplier is you can call them and talk with them,” he said. “They know what works and what does not work in Maine when it comes to their bees.”

Finding out what does and does not work is key when it comes to bees, McLaughlin said.

“I really encourage those wanting to be beekeepers to take a class,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people come and take my class who were surprised at the amount of work that actually goes into keeping bees.”

There is far more to beekeeping, McLaughlin said, than simply purchasing a colony and dumping them into a hive.

For example, new colonies often arrive before natural nectar is flowing. That means beekeepers must be constantly feeding the bees a special sugar syrup until they can go and forage on their own.

“The survivability of a colony increases dramatically with education,” he said. “Learning before you get bees goes a long way to an enjoyable first year versus a miserable year.”

When it comes to bees, he said, the learning never stops.

The Internet, the Maine Beekeepers Association and local bee clubs are all good sources for information.

Beekeepers with existing, over-wintered colonies should be checking the hives now. Queens have started laying and rearing brood, meaning they need specially prepared sugar-based food to supplement any honey stores.

Inside the hives, worker bees — all females — cluster by the tens of thousands around their queen, keeping her in the center, where it will remain a balmy 80 degrees all winter.

The temperature drops toward the edges of the cluster to around 50 degrees, but the bees constantly circulate their positions so everyone gets a chance to be toasty.

According to the bee association, there were 975 registered beekeepers in Maine last year with 9,789 hives and an additional 76,000 hives brought into the state for blueberry pollination.

Overall decline in bee populations due to colony collapse and varroa mite infestations means backyard beekeepers are more important than ever, according to McLaughlin.

“They help contribute to our local pollinators,” he said. “We need them in our gardens, our apple orchards and our local farms.”

Information on giving or taking bee classes is available from the Maine State Beekeepers Association website,

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.