SOUTHWEST HARBOR–Spring showers bring flowers, and when they bloom the bees are sure to follow.
“Dandelions are the start of it,” said John Williams about when the bees really begin coming out of their hives for the season.
He has been keeping bees for four years.
Over the warm weekend, three of Williams’s hives were all abuzz with worker bees moving in and out of the entrance, loaded down with pollen.
“They’ve been active for about two months now,” said Williams last week in a conversation with the Islander. “When the weather gets 45 [degrees] or above, they get active.”
There are more than 15,000 species of bees worldwide with 4,000 species native to North America. Honeybees are not a native species, according to Williams, but, along with other pollinating bees, they have become an essential part of our food system.
“They are one of the few species that directly benefits man,” Williams adds.
In a document created by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension highlighting how to understand bees and enhance their habitat, bees are called a keystone organism. This means they are an essential part of maintaining the integrity, productivity and sustainability of many types of ecosystems, it explains.
Bees are a hierarchical society where each gender has a role and a queen is in charge of the colony. A queen is the only bee in the colony who lays eggs to make more bees. Male bees, also called drones, have one job – to impregnate the queen. Thousands of female bees, called worker bees, make up the majority of the hive and keep busy collecting pollen and nectar, cleaning the hive and feeding the young.
While there are flowers to collect from, bees gather pollen in what are called pollen baskets on their hind legs. Pollen has protein and is a key source of nourishment for the hive. Nectar has sugar and is made into honey to feed the bees. Throughout the season, bees build up their hive and produce honey for food that can feed them over the winter.
Many people keep bees to harvest the honey they produce, but taking all of the honey from a hive compromises its ability to survive. Typically, beekeepers don’t harvest honey until at least the second year of having the same hive because the bees are able to produce more than what they need to get through the winter.
“I’m more into producing more bees than I am the honey end of it,” said Williams. He began beekeeping when he was working in his garden in Southwest Harbor and noticed there were no bees. “I’ve got seven active hives… I’m trying to build more hives. Every beekeeper you talk to has a different method.”
Keeping bees is not for the faint of heart. Besides taking the risk of being stung, keepers need to prepare for a certain percentage of loss each year.
“The first year I had three hives and I lost two,” said Williams. “The second year, I lost three out of five. Last year I lost two out of five. This year I had 10 going into winter.”
Jonesboro resident Andrew Dewey has been keeping bees for 20 years, many of which were on Mount Desert Island. He has had as many as 40 hives at one time and says an average of 40-50 percent of his hives successfully survive through the winter.
“It looks like at this point, I’ve lost three out of the 14,” he said, noting he had not opened his hives to the elements yet. “I like to wait until it’s 60 [degrees] before I go diving into the colonies… There’s not a whole lot of food out there right now.”
Bees have several predators including mites and bears that can dictate how keepers set up their hives.
“The other thing I’m doing is checking to see if my electric fence is working,” said Dewey at the end of April in a conversation with the Islander. “I’m in bear country. I’ve had a number of hives disturbed.”
An electric fence also surrounds Williams’s hives in an open field in Trenton. In addition to the electric fence, he has a ratchet strap wrapped around the boxes of the hive attaching it to the base it is on.
“If a bear wants your honey, he’s going to get your honey,” said Williams, who adds they find hives easier in the fall when they are fragrant with the scent of fresh honey. “They’re here and they’re hungry.”
Even though every beekeeper has their own method of tending the hives, as much education as possible before starting is a good way to build confidence. Keeping bees is also a noncompetitive hobby, and most beekeepers are always happy to help a novice. Williams has taken several classes and read through the Southwest Harbor Public Library’s stock of bee books.
He has a few pieces of key advice for those looking to get started, one of which is to give them space.
“The more land the better,” said Williams. “They’ll move. They’ll fly out a couple of miles.”
But perhaps the following advice is the most important.
“You need to notify your neighbors,” said Williams, who says allergies are the biggest reason people are not in favor of having bees nearby. “Generally, most people I talk to are thrilled about them.”