For many beekeepers in Maine, April 15 is not as much Tax Day as it is New Bee Day. Starting April 15th, packages of honeybees arrive to supplement the state’s 8,000 year-round hives. For Maine’s beekeeping community, it heralds the season’s beginning where bees get busy both pollinating crops and producing honey. “Maine’s honey is of the highest quality and no one has trouble selling this product at local farmer’s markets or elsewhere,” said Lincoln Sennett, owner of Swan’s Honey.
Why Buy Local
Today’s savvy consumers embrace the benefits of locally-produced foods for a variety of reasons. “New on the honey horizon is that real honey is a premium that customers get excited about,” said Erin MacGregor-Forbes, owner of Overland Apiaries in Portland. Locally-produced honey supports local beekeepers who follow good hive management practices, and fewer resources like petroleum are expended to put it on the table. Economically, this purchase supports Maine jobs for beekeepers and the ancillary businesses that they support, such as packaging suppliers and equipment retailers. Honey also has health benefits. Locally-produced honey is rich in vitamins, notably B6 and C, as well as antioxidants. For those suffering from seasonal allergies, Erin notes that honey contains trace amounts of pollen, which may help some people if they eat honey on a regular basis.
The state doesn’t track the sale and production of honey, but the increase in licensed beekeepers is one indicator that beekeeping is on the rise. In 2013, there were 860 licensed beekeepers and 9,657 registered hives, according to Maine’s State Apiarist Tony Jadczak with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. A decade ago Maine issued 318 licenses and had 5,231 registered hives. Since not all hives are registered, we know the number is much higher.
The Maine State Beekeepers Association (MSBA) is the resource for more than 500 members, many of whom are known as backyard beekeepers. MSBA fulfills two core functions: The first is education provided through the association’s annual meeting, bee schools, and speaker series that provide information on the latest techniques in this rather scientific field. The second is support at the local club level. Bees are so sensitive to their environment that in a large and geographically diverse state like Maine, beekeeping conditions may vary greatly. Clubs provide access to information on local conditions and support from other beekeepers.
MSBA President Carol Cottrill teaches beekeeping classes and a growing trend she sees is an increase in younger people – especially women – and families with children including urban and suburban residents. “Many are gardeners and homeowners with their own plot of land with space for a garden and a beehive,” said Carol. These students see the benefit bees provide with pollination.
Last year, the state imported almost 75,000 hives for commercial crop pollination. Bees pollinate the state’s wild blueberry, cranberry and apple crops along with native and wild flowers. In 2012, our wild blueberry crop’s processing value was reported at $68 million dollars. This tiny insect is a vital link in our state’s agricultural success, but native pollinators cannot do the job alone.
As the state’s largest producer and packer of honey, Lincoln Sennett of Swan’s Honey is well-versed in keeping a hive thriving. Lincoln contracts his hives out to pollinate blueberries, apples and cranberries. “The key to success is both understanding what stresses the bees and accommodating that need to reduce bee loss,” said Lincoln. “Economics is driving the problems for the bee industry but through careful management of your hive, you can overcome these issues.”
The two largest stressors on his bees are nutrition and mites, according to Lincoln. He employs the “one hive, one-pollination per year rule” to keep his colonies healthy. Pests like the varroa mite are an enemy of the honey bee. Once a mite has bitten a honeybee, the hole never closes and leaves the honeybee susceptible to disease for the rest of her life. Lincoln concedes that if they could eliminate this pest, raising and keeping honey bees would be far easier.
What can we do for the bees?
Honeybees that come to our state in packages to populate our hives, and in trucks to pollinate our crops experience a lot of stress. During the month of February, almost 95 percent of commercial bees in the United States come together in the almond groves of California, where they share diseases and pests (most notably the varroa mite). Traveling is stressful for honeybees. Additionally, while pollinating their diets are limited to single foods and what beekeepers feed them – usually sugar water or corn syrup. Like us, bees need a varied, natural diet to keep healthy. It is thought by many that the combination of all these stressors – disease and pests, bad nutrition, and the way migratory hives are treated more like factories than families – are responsible for the high levels of colony losses that beekeepers have experienced in recent years in the US and around the world.
Erin Forbes is experimenting with ways to use northern raised queens to reduce mortality in hives of Maine beekeepers, and increase our state’s self-reliance on bees that can thrive in our climate. You can read about this work at Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education
Aside from these larger issues, anyone can help the bees by learning to love dandelions, clover and other flowers that grow in lawns. By including flowers into lawnscape, people convert a food desert into a bounty of nectar for bees and other pollinators. “Dandelions are one of the first reliable crops for bees in the spring and can help sustain them into the season,” remarked Carol. And that’s something to buzz about!
Associations and website links -
Maine State Beekeepers Association
Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry