Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is founder and former President of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and beekeeping equipment and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out his website beewhisperer.us or go to “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, firstname.lastname@example.org, or YouTube’s “Beekeeping with The Bee Whisperer.”
I have seen so many changes in beekeeping since I was a kid in the ’70s. Back then we didn’t have the current scourge of beekeepers, the varroa mite. You gave your bees plenty of room to grow in the spring, and harvested lots of honey in the fall. Throughout my teens I never lost a honeybee colony.
These days are so different, unless you manage your colonies to control mites you will usually lose them before they are a year old. National annual honey bee losses have been about 40 percent every year for several years now. When teaching beekeeping my top priority is to emphasize how to, and the importance of, controlling these parasites in the hives. If you do, you have eliminated what is responsible for the vast majority of the losses of bees in Maine.
As my experience and research has grown I have improved my husbandry and mite control sufficiently that I have had a 90 percent survival of my bees over each of my last three winters.
The changing of weather we have been seeing with more droughts, late frosts, etc., has been hard for the bees. It has also required beekeepers to change their management. Abnormal weather usually puts an end to the flow of nectar for plants in bloom at the time. Mild winters and early springs have been good for the bees but for several years now I have seen the early summer honey flow end weeks early due to drought.
Fall honey flows have been very sporadic and sometimes our bees are losing weight at times they are traditionally gaining weight for winter. The beekeeper needs to be vigilant, as under these circumstances we usually need to feed our bees sugar syrup to help bulk them up.
The late frosts cause us some issues also. This year our first killing frost was almost a month later than normal. Most nectar bearing plants had died out at about their normal time so bees were left to forage in the late warm weather with little food available. This fruitless activity burns up resources and with the lack of flowers bees start to rob from each other.
Again, the beekeeper needs to be vigilant, reducing entrances to help bees guard their hives and extra feeding is required. While feeding and reducing entrances are normal things we need to do, the timing, amount and urgency of these tasks is changing.
Now, more than ever, beginners need the help of experienced beekeepers.
At the same time as this help is most needed, the COVID-19 pandemic has served to increase the numbers of people wanting to be more self-sufficient and take up gardening and beekeeping. Yet the pandemic has also been responsible for the closure of in-person beekeeping classes and beekeeping club meetings. Having had all my adult ed beekeeping for beginners classes canceled, I needed a new way to reach out to hundreds of students wanting to take up beekeeping.
Being born in the 1950s I have always been a bit behind in the world regarding things like the internet, YouTube and Zoom. But over the Christmas Holidays while some of my boys were home, I was given a crash course in making and publishing YouTube videos. With their help, my channel “Beekeeping with The Bee Whisperer” was launched at the end of December 2020. Now, having posted about 200 videos, it has more than 3,500 subscribers and is growing by the day.
Putting out instructional videos has been very rewarding for me and, I am told, helpful to my students. However, one of my good friends, Amy Nickerson, and I decided to take this concept to the next level over the last few months. We have been dismayed by a lot of the “information” provided on normal Facebook beekeeping groups, where many pieces of “advice” conflict with each other or are even down right wrong. There is no way of telling whether you are getting information from someone who knows what they are doing or just likes the sound of their own voice. Worse still are those with agendas or who are critical of folks genuinely looking for help.
We have been in the process of preparing material for a new on-line mentoring group called “BEEKEEPING 24/7.” This membership-based group, based on Facebook, will provide detailed online classes, Facebook live chats, question and answer sessions and fun challenges. All of this with information from known, knowledgeable local beekeepers in a friendly non-judgmental group.
“BEEKEEPING 24/7” should go live before the end of December, more information can be found on The Bee Whisperer Facebook page.