Honey bees laden with pollen gather at the hive entrance. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Cowin

Since COVID-19 shut down all my in-person adult education classes this winter I had to come up with a new plan for how to get practical beekeeping advice out to all those folks who wanted to keep bees. Now that so many people are spending more time at home, many are wanting to take up beekeeping.

I saw this raising interest last year as my sales of new bee colonies soared. Problem is, there are virtually no in-person beekeeping classes, so folks are winging it, learning from books or, as they go.

Having kept bees since the 1970’s, I have developed quite a skill set when it comes to bees, but I keep learning more every year. My last mentor was the late, great Harold Swan, who together with his dad, started Swan’s Honey. You cannot have bought a jar of honey in the state in the last 60 years and not seen the name Swan. I learned a great deal from Harold, but my learning did not stop with his passing a few years back. In fact, I have probably learned as much in the last few years of scaling up my beekeeping enterprise than I did in the preceding 4 decades!

Throughout the last 10 years I have been teaching beekeeping classes all over the state. From the Isles of Sholes in the south to Presque Isle in the north. I’ve had more than 2,000 adult education students in that time.

For a few years I have been toying with the idea of creating a YouTube channel to chronicle my beekeeping experiences, as I am a better talker than I am a writer. (You don’t have to get the spelling right when you talk!)

But with the pandemic there was a sudden need for me to reach out to would-be students in a different way. Finally, between Christmas and New Year, while I was so lucky to be able to have one of my boys, James, home for the holidays, I received a crash course on making and editing videos. As with beekeeping, having a teacher was critical for me to get started.

My aim was to make a few different types of video. First and foremost, I wanted to make a series of videos which would cover everything I gave in my face-to-face classes for the new or would-be beekeeper. Second, I wanted to help develop the skills of current beekeepers building up from a hive or two and show them how I turned my happy pastime into a small business.

If you want to check it out, the channel is called Beekeeping with The Bee Whisperer.

I’ve been through times of financial insecurity and it was my beekeeping (and my lovely wife’s job) that turned things around for us. So, in these unsettling times, another source of income helps. Finally, when good weather arrives, I aim to do more Bee Whisperer’s diary type videos on what I am doing today in the bee yard.

I must say I have got a bit hooked on making beekeeping videos. In between making videos, and in some cases, while I am making videos, I am preparing for spring. Building up my inventory of beekeeping equipment in the store and checking the state of my bees who will be for sale in the spring.

So far, my bees are looking great. When I go out into my bee yards there are lots of dead bees on the snow. While that might sound terrible to the non-beekeeper, to me what it means is that my bee colonies are alive. Each one went into the winter with about 30,000 bees. Of which more than half would be expected to die over the winter. That is about 100 bees per day will die in every hive. In a warm healthy hive, a bee sensing that her time is up, will try to leave the hive so as not to die inside the hive. If the colony is in a bad way and failing to maintain its temperature (over 80 degrees Fahrenheit) then the chilled bees can not move and simply die inside the hive. So in my yard with 40 hives, I could see as many as 4,000 dead bees per day on freshly fallen snow and I would be delighted.

I do hope that by May I will be able to run a number of in-person beekeeping classes, even if only outdoors to compliment the videos.

However it happens, the show must go on. We need bees and beekeepers and I will keep doing what I can to ensure that need is met.

Story by Peter Cowin.