It’s been a while since my last column was published. A lot has happened since then.

Those of you who follow The Bee Whisperer on Facebook will know that in late September I had a fire in my barn. A heater used to decrystallize a 5 gallon bucket of honey malfunctioned and set light to my work bench and, in turn, the nearby wall and staircase.

Fortunately, the fire was in the center of the barn and far enough from the windows that they did not break from the heat. The lack of oxygen in the building kept the fire from engulfing the whole structure. We were very lucky indeed. Nevertheless, the smoke and heat damage was substantial. All of my stock in the store was lost, as were all the personal possessions and furniture stored upstairs.

Sadly, my observation hive full of bees, which only two days before had been the special guest stars at Parkside Children’s Learning Center, also perished in the heat and smoke. The barn is now fixed up, painted and restocked.

The lack of rain in August last year gave us a second fall with no goldenrod honey flow. When bees are not bringing in nectar in the summer and fall they start to get physiologically stressed, making them much more vulnerable to the viruses that varroa mites carry. This made it particularly important that hives were treated for mites through the summer and fall. Those hives that were not treated to control mites sufficiently would die. I was very glad that I had decided on a safety-first approach and had treated three times.

This winter has proven to be a very hard one on bees. The brutal cold in late December and early January tested even the strongest hives. Bees cluster together at this time, vibrating their flight muscles to generate heat. Strong colonies with lots of bees can generate enough heat to keep the cluster warm. A large mass of bees can also reach a lot of honey in the hive without moving. Small clusters of bees covering only a few combs can access relatively little honey at a time. Severe cold makes the cluster have to contract to keep warm, covering even less honey. If it stays too cold for too long, the cluster can not move to reach new stores of honey and they all starve.

In most years in Maine, bees can make it through the winter even in hives that are not insulated. In the last 6 years since I stopped insulating my hives I have had reasonably good results with few dying from cold. This winter was different, and the cold was just too extreme for too long. I lost a lot of hives.

Having spoken to the State Apiarist, Jennifer Lund, and hearing reports from customers, I gather I was not alone in seeing high mortality. Needless to say, from now on I plan to insulate my hives. The added cost of a Bee Cozy to add a layer of R8 insulation should be made up for by lower losses of bees and stronger hives in the spring. It will be something I use myself and I will stock them in my store.

I will have more than 400 three-pound packages of bees with queens for sale this May. More than half are already sold. More information is available on my Facebook page, The Bee Whisperer, or call me 207-299-6948.

Most of my beekeeping for beginners class at Adult Ed have already run this spring. I do have classes in Readfield and Presque Isle coming up. I also however have beginner and intermediate classes due to run at my honey farm in Hampden. My April 8 build a hive day and April 14 beginner classes are sold out. I still have places in my three-night beginners class on the evenings of April 23, 24 and 25, 6-8pm, and a one day, hands-on beginners class, where we will go into the beehives on Saturday, June 2, 8-2:30pm. I also have an intermediate, hands-on class on Saturday, June 16, 8-2pm. Call me for details 207-299-6948. Protective gear is provided for hand-on classes.

Finally, this winter, we lost a great pillar in Maine’s beekeeping community: my friend and mentor, Harold Swan. Harold passed away after a brief illness on January 14, and soon after, his wife of 76 years, Hilda, passed away on March 15.

Harold was the founder of Swan’s Honey, a company he built and eventually sold in 2002. Harold pioneered commercial beekeeping in Maine. In his prime he had over 2400 hives. He was the first to take his bees to the blueberry barrens to pollinate Maine’s blueberry crop.

Most beekeepers within 100 miles of Brewer, where Harold lived all his life, would visit Harold and Hilda at their beekeeping supply store. There he would give advice and tell tales of beekeeping for as long as you had time to stay. It was a great honor to me when Harold, having decided to scale down his activities, asked if I would like to take over from him as the local bee supply guy.

Not long before his passing, Harold said to his longtime friend Tom Hartranft, “Tom, I sure hope there are honeybees in Heaven.”

I am sure that if there wasn’t before, my friend, Harold Swan, the grandfather of Maine beekeeping, will have found a way to take a few hives up there with him.