Blaine Richardson — The ABCs of bees

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Blaine Richardson is currently the . . . how to put it? . . .  queen bee of the Auburn Bee Club (ABC). As president, he admits to beeing fascinated with bees and how they live. He’s an expert who is always learning more about the usually gentle, always busy honey bees he tends. He talks with us about how they survive the winter, where they go to the bathroom, yellow bee pants and much more.

Full name: Blaine Richardson

Residence: Durham

Tell us about one of your favorite bee experiences:

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My most valuable experience was the opportunity I had to learn how to LINE honey bees from my grandfather many years ago. This was when there were a lot of wild hives. We caught a couple of honey bees and set up a bee lining box. Watched the bees and the direction they would go, and tracked down their hive. There is a lot more to it than that, but it is a great memory, and planted the seed for me to get into beekeeping later in life.

Catching a swarm has been the most awesome experience. Of course, the goal of a beekeeper is to prevent a hive from swarming, but that was how I started beekeeping. I had the hive boxes and I was waiting to take a beginners’ bee class that fall. I was checking the Androscoggin Beekeepers website when I noticed a member had a swarm in her yard that was looking for a home. I dressed up in full bee attire and with her help we shook them into their new home. Then, this summer one of my hives decided to look for a new home. My wife noticed that something was wrong. She could hear the bees and then she saw the bee tornado with thousands of bees swirling in the air. It really did look like a tornado. The queen had landed on a branch about six feet off the ground and the other bees were landing with her. We suited up, placed a tarp down under the bees and as I held a new hive box under the swarm my wife shook the branch. I looked and the rest of the bees started flying into the box and I knew we had the queen. Beekeeping is such a great experience and hobby, with so much to learn.

What is one of your worst bee experiences? Well, getting stung is not my favorite thing, but in most cases the bees are very gentle and easy to work with. They die when they sting, so it is not what they want to do, but what would you do if someone was taking your home apart? The second would be cleaning out a hive that did not make it through the winter. I try to figure out why, and what could I have done to avoid losing a hive. I want to learn, to hopefully avoid repeating the same mistake. It isn’t fair to the bees, so I do everything that I can to help them. It can be a long COLD winter.

What happens to the bees in the wintertime? In the fall, the number of bees greatly reduces. There is only one queen bee in the hive, and she may live for several years, unlike summer bees that live for only about six weeks. They work themselves to death. The fall-hatched bees should live through the winter and be ready to kick the hive into gear come spring. Their goal during the winter is to keep the queen warm, fed and safe. The bees form a ball inside the hive. They eat the honey and pollen that were left to them by the beekeeper. The bees keep the queen in the middle of their cluster to keep her warm. Bees do not go to the bathroom inside the hive and need a January thaw to break out of the cluster and fly outside to defecate and return to the cluster. The bees will not break the cluster if there are no warm days. The bad part of this is a hive could starve even with lots of honey still in the hive, because it was too cold for them to move to a new part of the hive. There is a lot going on in there.

How do they survive the winter if you steal their honey? Here is the balance: The beekeeper has to try to determine how much honey he can take and how much he must leave for them to make it through the months of no food and cold weather. It isn’t easy, but it is always better to leave extra honey. Beekeepers do not HAVE to have the honey to survive. Even with that, the beekeeper may need to or decide to feed the bees sugar during the winter in hopes of helping them survive to the next spring and the dandelion bloom.

I’ve seen some beekeeping video, and some people are covered from head to toe — veil and gloves, etc. — while others use their bare hands and no gloves while they work the bees. Which are you? I am still at the stage where I am dress head to toe. I have not had enough experience to where I am comfortable working without full protection. I believe that a veil is a must, no matter what level you are at! To me it is like wearing a seat belt, for the just-in-case. Gloves make it hard to handle the frames and impossible to handle a bee without hurting it, which is necessary when you need to mark a queen or catch her for some other reason. It really comes down to what makes you comfortable while you are around a few thousand or tens of thousands of bees.

Can I assume it’s probably not a good thing for the bees if I spray all my flowers and veggies in my backyard with pesticides? What you are spraying on your garden and flowers is something to kill insects, and honey bees are insects. Please avoid if at all possible.

What do you recommend to gardeners? It depends. I am not an expert in this field, but the local flower shop or garden center should be able to offer you alternatives to chemicals. Just think: If you are spraying your vegetables, are they absorbing some of that into the parts you will be eating?

Does being a beekeeper really make you feel like a more integral part of the natural world or is it all about your honey addiction? Actually I first started beekeeping because my fruit trees and berry bushes were not getting pollinated. You may have noticed there are not many bees around. It quickly turned into a fascination as to what is going on in the hive. I just can’t learn enough. The different tasks the bees have, the work, how things get done and just everything involved to make it work and survive! Honey production may be some beekeepers’ goal — everyone likes to get some honey for their investment — but they will always focus on the bees first.

What are those little yellow things on a bee’s back legs? Is that nectar? I believe that you are talking about the pollen sacks on the back legs. As a bee visits a flower it gathers nectar and pollen. The pollen is a very important part of bee rearing as it is one part of their food. Bees cannot live on nectar alone.

How can someone get involved in beekeeping? Beekeeping is a great hobby. Most counties have beekeeping clubs. The Androscoggin Beekeepers Club meets the first Wednesday of the month, September through May, at 6:30 p.m. at Auburn City Building, 60 Court St., Room 206, right over the Auburn police station. This is a great opportunity to get an idea as to what beekeeping is about, ask some questions and meet some really great people. Anyone interested in or thinking about beekeeping should sign up for a bee class.

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