Resources, tips, and inspiration to start your own sweet hives
By Kate Bielinski
Beekeeping has become a steadily growing hobby. Between the promise of sweet, golden honey and the critical role bees play in our ecosystem, there is a lot of reward that can come from starting your own colony. However, before diving into this fascinating world, you’ll need to invest some time and effort into research, preparation, and finding your footing in the supportive beekeeping community.
Currently amid one of her busiest times of the year, Jennifer Lund is making rounds conducting hive inspections. As the State of Maine Apiarist and Bee Inspector, Lund has seen the best and worst-case scenarios of beekeeping and encourages anyone looking to get started to reach out for advice. She is a valuable resource on good beekeeping practices, sound colony management, and obtaining a hive registration license — a requirement here in Maine.
Since we often see many honeybees thriving in the wild with little human intervention, setting up a hive in your backyard and harvesting fresh honey to your heart’s content may sound like a pretty sweet scenario, but in reality there is more complexity and responsibility when it comes to becoming a beekeeper.
“One of the biggest misconceptions I come across is that beekeeping is easy,” Lund cautioned. “Just like your dog or cat or cattle or poultry, [bees] are living creatures that need us to take care of them.”
Peter Cowin, better known as The Bee Whisperer in Hampden, has decades of experience growing honeybees in New England. He recommends new beekeepers start with at least two hives, which typically house around 10,000 bees to start and can grow up to 30,000 in the summer when the queen is laying eggs. Having two hives gives you a reference point if something seems off in one hive. It also allows you to compensate for colony size issues, as you can carefully transfer bees from one hive to the other to maintain a healthy population.
When you start your new hive, your colony won’t have stored honey, so your bees will need an energy source to build comb, feed the brood, and perform other essential tasks. As a beekeeper, you’ll need to feed your bees about three to four times a week, giving them sugar syrup until they can build up enough of their own resources: honey.
Knowing when and how much honey to harvest is also key to ensuring the health of your colony and maximizing your honey yield. Generally, here in Maine, late summer or early fall is when most beekeepers get to savor the sweetness of their efforts. The caveat? You have to share with your bees.
Leaving sufficient honey stores for your bees is crucial to their survival in the winter months. Cowin recommends beginning the preparation for Maine’s colder months in midsummer.
“You want to ensure you have plenty of food in the hive — about 50 pounds, depending on your location and the severity of winter — and can also supplement with sugar syrup if needed.”
As part of the winter preparation, in addition to considering insulation options for your hive, Cowin also stresses the importance of treating for mites, which is the most significant threat to managed honeybee colonies.
“Not checking your bees for mites can weaken your hive, eventually causing you to lose it entirely,” he said.
As part of a healthy hive checkup, you’ll want to do an inspection every two to three weeks, looking for signs of a strong, thriving colony, as well as potential issues that may require intervention. You’ll want to assess the honey and pollen stores, ensuring that there is enough food and supplement with sugar syrup if needed. During check-ins, you want to stay vigilant for any indications of pests or diseases, including visible signs of mites or American foulbrood.
While not nearly as common as mites, American foulbrood is far more severe as it is highly contagious among bee colonies.
“When we find [American foulbrood] we have to destroy the equipment and the bees unfortunately,” Lund noted, adding that it can also produce spores that are long-lived, potentially staying on equipment for as many as 80 years. For this reason, Lund and Cowin recommend getting your equipment from a local bee supplier. This ensures you are getting quality equipment right for your particular beekeeping goals and colony size.
If it’s beginning to sound like there’s more to beekeeping than meets the eye, the good news is that between local beekeeping communities and state resources, you’ll never be alone on your journey.
A big advocate for immersing yourself into the beekeeping community before getting started, Cowin recommends taking classes, apprenticing with other beekeepers, and finding a mentor. Alongside running in-person and virtual classes, Cowin shares a wealth of information and resources on his YouTube Channel, Beekeeping with The Bee Whisperer.
A Shared Experience
With guidance from Cowin and a lot of research, Penobscot Shores, a retirement community in Belfast, began keeping honeybees in 2018 as part of a larger project to encourage pollinators on their grounds. Starting with two hives and having as many as four over the years, residents look after the hives and meet to discuss progress. Last summer they collected around 10 gallons of honey. Residents who are not hands-on with the bees also get to enjoy the spoils. The community shares the honey they harvest and use the beeswax to make lip balm, candles, and furniture polish, even selling some of those goods at their arts and crafts fair.
In addition to the environmental benefits and perks of having fresh honey, Penobscot Shores marketing director Steve Bowler acknowledges that the experience of raising honeybees is also a rewarding learning experience for residents.
“We’ve had all different kinds of colors of pollen in the hive. We’ve seen things that are working well, things that are not working and need to be changed, and it’s kind of like a puzzle we try to solve together,” Bowler said.
Outside of being a bonding activity for the residents, Bowler shared a heartwarming story of excited grandchildren visiting their grandfather and having the opportunity to don their own bee suit and tend to the hive.
“It’s really sweet to see generations working together, and now that’s a shared experience and something you have in common with your grandkids to talk about,” he said.
Resources to get started:
Maine State Beekeepers Association | mainebeekeepers.org
The Bee Whisperer | beewhisperer.us
(Editor’s note: Bangor Metro editor Amy Allen is the daughter of Steve Bowler.)