RUMFORD — The long, brutal winter has been tough on Maine honeybees, starving some and leaving others with little to eat so far, several beekeepers said this week.

Andover beekeeper Christopher Bailey said Friday evening that he lost nine out of 16 hives this winter. He said they simply ran out of stored honey and starved.

“I’ve been talking with other people who said they lost a fair amount of bees, too,” Bailey said. “There’s one other beekeeper in Andover, and he lost both of his hives. One year, I had 10 hives and lost nine.”

Kevin Farr of Oxford, president of the Oxford Hills Honey Bee Club, said Friday that this winter wasn’t as bad as a previous winter, but the lack of dandelions this spring is cause for concern.

Farr said Maine bees must have enough stored honey to make it through six to seven months of winter, and then plenty of dandelions in the spring. He’s only seen two on his lawn so far.

“It’s not the sea of yellow you usually see this time of year,” Farr said.

“Personally, I started this winter with 13 hives and lost one, which wasn’t bad, but in the winter before last, I had 10 hives and lost six out of the 10,” Farr said. “So this was my best winter.”

He said he has 40,000 to 60,000 bees per hive in the summer, but after the winter, he expects to have 30,000 to 40,000 per hive.

Carol Cottrill of Fox Run Farm on Wyman Hill Road in Rumford said she lost some bees over the winter, and some of the hives had no honey left at all.

Cottrill is a hobbyist beekeeper who teaches a beekeeping course at Region 9 School of Applied Technology in Mexico. She is president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association and secretary of the Western Maine Beekeepers Association. She is also a member of the Oxford Hills Honey Bee Club.

She has 12 hives, each of which have 50,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer, but less in the winter, because that would be too many mouths for the colony to feed.

“Bees, everybody thinks they hibernate in the winter, but what they really do is cluster really close together to keep each other warm,” she said.

“The bees in the center shiver, and by shivering, create heat,” she said. “And the bees outside around the shivering bees help keep the others insulated and warm. And then, over time, those on the outside that get cold, go into the middle, start shivering and they get warm while the warm ones move to the outside in order to keep the others warm.

“So there’s a ball of bees moving all the time and keeping each other and the cluster, as it’s called, warm,” she said. “The shivering requires that they eat. They’ve got to have honey to have calories to do that shivering motion.

“So in Maine, we have to leave our bees with 80 to 100 pounds of honey for them to survive the winter,” Cottrill said. “So in the fall, if we don’t have that 80 to 100 pounds of honey in the hive, there’s a possibility that the bees over the winter could starve.”

She said they feed their bees sugar and sugar candy.

“We actually make up a solution of sugar and water and give it to them,” Cottrill said. “But honey is the best thing. That is their normal food.”

She said this spring, she and her husband began feeding their bees as soon as they opened the hives, “because basically, the winter was long, the fall was long, warm, and they used a lot (of stored honey).”

In some of the hives, there was no honey at all, she said.

The dandelions, the first reliable source of pollen for bees, are late this year, Cottrill said. Before the dandelions bloom, bees can get pollen from pussy willows and some of the trees, but the nectar sources aren’t that visible.

“So much of what we’re used to hasn’t made it here yet,” Cottrill said.

She said although the winter was long and hard, “we’re finding out that the bees came out OK, but some of the hobbyist beekeepers have a little more trouble. Everybody loses some.”

Normal honeybee winter losses in Maine used to be around 10 to 15 percent.

“Now, we’re seeing that with some of the mite problems and some other issues that we have with the bees — not just winter, but all other health issues with the bees — it’s not unusual for people to lose about 30 percent of their bees every winter,” she said.

For Melinda King of Littleton in Aroostook County, the percentage was much higher.

She said Friday that she and her husband lost 11 of their 12 hives this winter. That’s despite her husband’s attempt to help them through the winter by building an insulated bee room in the barn to keep them out of the wind.

They founded the Aroostook County Beekeepers Association last year and operate Honeycomb Depot, a store that sells beekeeping supplies and local raw honey.

“It wasn’t a really good winter,” King said. “We had a few of our association members calling us already looking for bees, because theirs died as well, for various reasons, but in most cases, they think they starved.”

King said that when their bees die over winter, they buy more, but other beekeepers in Aroostook County might just quit, because they get discouraged trying to get their bees to survive Maine winters.

“It’s hard to winter them in northern Maine,” she said.

Some professional beekeepers take their bees to Florida and California to continue making honey and keep them safe from Maine winters.

“We’ve thought about taking them to southern Maine to help them through the winter,” King said.

She said that many people who keep bees in northern Maine simply kill them in the fall and buy more bees in the spring to begin anew.

“We’ve really struggled with winter, but hate to kill them in the fall,” King said. “We’ve been beekeeping for five or six years, and we’ve always had just one or two hives make it, but never all of them.”

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