While the commercial beekeepers have been bringing in a record number of hives to pollinate the blueberry barrens in Washington County, backyard beekeepers have been buzzing up their own storm. Tony Jadczak, the state apiarist, says there are 860 registered hobby beekeepers with 9,700 hives in the state, but he estimates there are probably more like 1,200 beekeepers and a much higher number of hives since it's likely that not everyone knows that they are required to register their hives with the state.
The hobby beekeeper may keep one hive, like Bob Costa in Perry or Karen Baldauski in Lubec, or 25 hives such as beekeeper Andrew Dewey in Jonesboro. Baldauski has been beekeeping since 1997 as an effort to increase pollination when she learned that wild bee populations were in decline. She was located near Augusta at the time, learned from some neighbors and kept seven hives on a small farm. They thrived, and she was hooked. When she moved permanently to Lubec a few years ago, she started up a hive. It hasn't been quite as easy-going a process as her former operation, with the winter climate much more of a challenge.
Trescott resident Al May had much the same experience as Baldauski when he lived in Monmouth and kept a couple of hives "that did incredibly well" because of all the farms in the area. Since he's moved to Washington County he has not harvested any honey; instead he keeps the honey in the hive for the bees to use over the winter. Bee behavior and their pollinating role are what's important to him. He is currently working on a pollination plan for his farm.
Honey may seem like the major attraction of keeping hives, but for beekeepers who stick with it, usually for longer than two years, the bees themselves and their habits are the hook. Baldauski says, "Backyard beekeeping is a joy. I find the whole yard is alive with those joyous creatures. Every dandelion will have a bee on it. The fruit trees and maples will be covered in bees."
Costa is on his third year and is clearly hooked. "I like to stand and look and watch the bees. They don't bother me. The trick is moving slowly. And it's just so fun to watch." He's placed his one hive on the second floor of his barn where a door is propped open. Bears were the reason for the second floor placement far out of reach of wild honey seekers. It's been going well, and he's planning on adding another hive soon. May remarks that the staghorn sumac were just in bloom, and "the trees were alive with bees."
The mentoring beekeepers
Over in Pembroke Maria Townsend and Brent Ellinwood of Cackling Hen Farm keep five hives. They're in their fourth year and have received much good advice and help from another Pembroke beekeeper, Stephen Taylor, who is often called upon to remove swarms that have taken up home in people's houses. The three of them sit under an old apple tree overlooking the farm and talk about all things bees. They say that the biggest challenge to beekeeping is knowing when to act. While for the most part keeping bees is about leaving them alone, "It's doing what I'm supposed to do on time and keeping on top of things," Ellinwood explains. "How would you like to have the roof of your house torn off every day?" he asks, illustrating the importance of knowing when to get in there with preventive care and when to leave well enough alone. It's all about timing and prevention. And that's where having a mentor or group with experience really helps. "It's so much fun," Townsend adds, watching honey bees that have come over from the hive location to collect pollen from small white clover blossoms covering the lawn.
Costa was helped by the owners of Swan's Honey, a commercial beekeeping and honey production operation in Albion, with its Maine honey sold at health food stores, the Common Ground Fair and other local retail outlets. "He was very good about explaining what to do. And that's what's so important in beekeeping -- the hand-holding," Costa says.
Getting a leg up with a group experience such as a beekeeping class is another option for people with beekeeping in their bonnets. Al May is the president of the Washington County Beekeepers Association, a chapter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. The founding president of the county association, Andrew Dewey, has kept his 25 or more hives for over 12 years. The county chapter has developed beekeeping classes through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service that includes membership in the association.
With the chapter formed in 2013, it has held two year's worth of classes, with about 30 beekeepers now in the membership out of an estimated 150 beekeepers in the county. Classes include open hive visits where students learn hands‑on what the inside of hives look like, and how to recognize different activities and parts. The two men are a wealth of knowledge and jump into discussions about the challenges of keeping the presence of varroa mites down so that vector diseases do not take over the hive; the presence of pesticides and herbicides in the environment and how these affect bee populations; different hive management practices using organic and non‑organic methods; colony collapse disorder and the quandary associated with the insecticide class of neonicotinoids, which are being used to combat the highly destructive emerald ash borer but that studies are showing may be toxic to bees, among other insects.
And then there's the honey. For those who produce honey from their hives, "What a mess!" exclaims Townsend with a smile. Each frame of honey can weigh 50 pounds or more. Honey gets everywhere despite the best of intentions. Taylor says that about 80 to 90 pounds of honey stays with the hive for the winter. Ellinwood adds that he and Townsend are harvesting about 30 lbs. of honey from each hive for consumption. And after the honey has been collected, the mess cleaned up, the wax returned to the bees for "cleaning" up any remaining honey residue, what's left are jars of golden treasure sold at roadside stands, local stores, farmers markets and if lucky, given as a gift. As Costa says, "I shared a lot of it and spread the love around."
For more information about hobby beekeeping in Maine visit <www.mainebeekeepers.org>; for inspections and registrations visit <www.maine.gov/dacf/php/apiary/>. For more information about the Washington County Beekeepers Association and classes, e-mail May at <Alfred.May@maine.gov>.