Peter Cowin, also known as The Bee Whisperer, handles a hive of bees. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Cowin

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 or go to “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, email, visit his YouTube channel, “ Beekeeping with The Bee Whisperer.”

The up and down temperatures of February and March this year have lowered my expectations for good winter survival across Maine.

We have had a few very warm days, which frees the bees to have a very desirable cleansing flight. On those warm days the clusters break up and bees start to move, cleaning out dead bees and accessing combs of, as yet, untouched honey.

The problem has been that these warm spells have been followed by cold fronts bringing temperatures down too fast for the colony to reestablish its warm winter cluster. The last warm spell saw temperatures drop from the mid 60s to the mid teens in only six hours, by which time there was also a strong, biting wind.

When that happens, the bees try in vain to reform their large winter cluster but instead can only huddle together in small groups each too small to generate sufficient heat to survive the sudden chill.

Conversely, cold weather followed by a brief spell of warm damp weather can give colonies condensation issues as moisture condenses on cold combs of unused honey. These conditions can soon lead to loss of bee brood and to fungal and bacterial stress diseases.

Hives that are well insulated fair best under these conditions of both sudden chill and sudden rise in temperature.

I can see that we are already behind last year’s early spring but the weather forecast at the time of writing this looks more promising. Not for any significant warm spell but for more stable temperatures — I’ll take that.

My plan now is to get round to all my yards and see how my bees are doing. They all went into the winter with plenty of food but I will be prepared with winter feed of sugar-based winter patties to keep them going, just in case. Once we have regular warm days in the high 40s and 50s I can start to feed sugar syrup.

Most hives should have plenty of honey in them still, and in those hives, I will start to feed pollen patties. In contrast to winter patties, these contain high-protein pollen substitute which is what the bees need to rear brood. The sudden availability of protein mimics what will happen in a few weeks when the trees start to bloom and the bees begin to forage and collect large amounts of pollen. In effect I get them to start brood rearing a few weeks early.

This is OK, as long as the hives are still well stocked with honey. If not, the sudden growth in population, and hence food consumption, would potentially lead to starvation in March or April, before big sources of nectar were available.

I suspect this difficult weather will be one reason why my early orders for bees are so high, well above last year. As in previous years, I’ll be selling 3-lb packages of bees with queens as well as partially grown-on hives called nucleus colonies, usually called nucs. Nucs are a little more expensive but a much lower level of risk, especially for the beginner. Packaged bees are good but do run a significant risk of queen loss in the early months. Nucs very rarely have such problems and I try to point my beginners in the direction of starting with nucs rather than packages. The advantages far outweigh the marginally higher cost.

I have made a major change to my beekeeping beginner and intermediate classes this year as well. While I am doing a class called “Is Beekeeping for Me” at Adult Eds in Bangor, Newport, Ellsworth and MDI, I am doing in person, hands-on, classes at my Honey Farm in Hampden, April 23, May 14, May 21, June 11 and 18.

Those needing bees or to book a class can come to my beekeeping supply store in Hampden, contact me on my facebook page, The Bee Whisperer, or download an order form from my website, or call 207-299-6948.

In my 10 years of teaching beekeeping to thousands of students in the region, there is one common factor in determining the beginners who are most likely to be successful and those that are not. That is mentorship. You can learn a lot about beekeeping in a class, or by reading books or watching videos but the key to success comes from knowing what and when to do certain things.

If there is one thing we can rely on when we open a beehive it’s that things will be a little different than what we expected almost every time! This undermines our confidence that what we had thought we had learned was properly understood. Having someone available, or not, who you can ask questions to is the biggest determining factor I have seen between those that successfully keep their bees alive and those who will more frequently lose their bees.

Having a successful beekeeper there with you is of course the ideal, but few of us live in an ideal world. I am often able to help customers that come to my store for advice, but that is often a week or so after the observations are made, and this can and often is too late to respond effectively. Going online to various beekeeping groups can give you very helpful and accurate information, but the problem is that a question posted on groups like that will often give you 20 answers, six of which may be the appropriate answer or answers, six might be appropriate if you had already been doing things in a different way, four might be dead wrong and four may be criticizing you in some way for your ignorance. There is no way to know which answer is right for you.

To address this need Amy Nickerson, President of Penobscot County Beekeepers, and myself have started a new mentoring group called Beekeeping 24/7. This is a private, paid membership group which provides consistent, friendly and successful tutoring with detailed online beekeeping classes with real time and recorded question and answer sessions, fun challenges and more. We are currently closed for new members. We will reopen for new members early in the spring, still in time for keeping bees this year. Contact me at or 207-299-6948 to get on our waiting list.