Honeybee hives insulated and wrapped to withstand the Maine winter. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Cowin

The fine couple of days with temperatures in the 50s we had earlier in February gave me a chance to see how my girls were faring over the winter.

I had entered the winter with high hopes. Last spring, I looked to improve the genetics of my stock using a more mite-resistant Canadian strain of bee called Saskatraz. I had also made one major change to my overwintering strategy, having insulated my hives with Bee-Cozies.

My first hive inspection of 2019 did not start off too well. When I took the cover off the very first hive, my gaze was met by six beady, brown eyes! The colony was dead and three field mice had made a cozy nest at the top of the hive, having evaded the wire grid I had covered the bottom hive entrance with to keep them out. Instead, they chewed the small upper entrance open, and made themselves at home. To be honest, I did not hold out a great deal of hope for this hive in the fall. It had struggled towards the end of the season, having lost and replaced its queen. I should really have combined it with another hive. Funnily enough, I did not find another mouse in all my 70 hives.

After that, things improved. The vast majority of colonies had not just survived but thrived. Big happy clusters of bees. The day was warm, and thousands of bees were flying round, stretching their wings and having a long-awaited bathroom break. The snow for yards around the hives was speckled with yellow bee poo!

The few colony mortalities I did have seemed to align well with some variations between my bee yards and the different mite treatments I gave them in the fall. More lessons learned.

My main concern now is that given that the colonies are so strong, with large clusters of bees, they will eat a lot of honey. I did add between one and six pounds of sugar and winter patties in all of them, but there is always the risk that they can starve before the start of spring nectar flow. I will continue to visit them through the winter to see if extra food is needed.

In the last few months I have been working with a couple of local companies on some joint projects.

Each spring the folks at Highland Organic Blueberry Farms on Old County Road in Stockton Springs rent some of my colonies for pollination. Like myself, owner Theresa Gaffney is a very inventive person, and she has made a variety of value-added products not just from her organic blueberries but also things like teas from their leaves. Whenever I visit to tend the bees there, she and I spend some time brainstorming ideas about farming methods, bees and honey. Recently, we came up with a tasty new product we called “Blue Honey.” It is a mixture of the honey my bees produce on her organic blueberry fields and her dried blueberry powder. As well as it being a unique and delicious treat, we like how it also tells a story about how interdependent the environment she maintains and the bees I care for are. As well as blueberries, she allows other nectar and pollen-bearing plants to thrive in her fields. While some growers criticize that this “chokes out” production of blueberries, it also allows the growth of other important species that help keep a balance in this little microhabitat. In other places, I would need to take honey bees off blueberry fields in June, as after the blueberries were done blooming there would be little food and my bees would starve. But on Theresa’s farm, and to some extent other organic farms, there is more blooming in the summer and fall and my bees, and other pollinators, thrive.

I started another project dear to my heart this winter. My wife, Anne, and I love going to a little, hidden-away, microbrew pub on Columbia Street in Bangor called 2 Feet Brewing. We sometimes get a chance to chat to owners Nok-Noi and Cory Ricker. We were talking about bees and beer one day and came up with the idea we should work together and make a honey beer, also known as a bragget. In this beer, honey replaces some of the sugars the brewer usually derives from barley.

They are calling it “Bee Whisperer,” a true honor. The brew is not sweet like honey, as most of the sugars have been fermented, but it does take on some of the honey flavor.

Cory tells me that it is 5.4 percent alcohol by volume and has only 100 calories per 12 ounces. The honey we used is a wildflower honey I collected from my hives located at the Zone radio station on Broadway. Thanks to owner Stephen King and the folks at Zone Radio for allowing me to keep bees there. I have calculated that for every pint of Bee Whisperer bragget, my bees will have flown about 6,000 miles in the Bangor region and they will have pollinated more than 200,000 flowers! The beer will be officially launched on Saturday, March 2, at the 2 Feet pub, and it will also feature at the beer event for the Maine Science Festival at Nocturnem in Bangor on Thursday, March 7. Come join us.

My beekeeping classes are getting underway at the following times and locations:

Newport Beginners, 6-9 p.m. March 4 and 11; call 207-368-3290 www.RSU19.maineadulted.org

Readfield Beginners, 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9; call 207-685-4923 ext. 1065 http://maranacook.maineadulted.org

Sullivan Beginners, 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m. March 25 and April 1; call 207-422-4794 https://rsu24.coursestorm.com/course/beekeeping-for-beginners?search=bee&x=0&y=0

Ellsworth Beginners, 6:30-8:30 p.m. March 26, April 2 and 9; call 207-664-7110 ellsworth.maineadulted.org

Pittsfield Beginners, 6-9 p.m. March 27 and April 3; 207-487-5107 msad53.maineadulted.org

Hampden Beginners, one day hands-on, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6; call 207-299-6948

Hampden Beginners, one day hands-on, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13; call 207-299-6948

Bangor Intermediate, 6-8 p.m. May 6, 13 and 20; call 207-992-5522 www.bangoradulted.org

Hampden Beginners, one day hands-on, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8; call 207-299-6948

Presque Isle Beginners, one day, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, May 18; call 207-764-4776 http://msad1.maineadulted.org/

Hampden Intermediate, one day hands-on; 8-2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 8; call 207-299-6948