Local beekeepers hope new club will be all the buzz

By Ben Holbrook | Jan 13, 2013
Photo by: Ben Holbrook Doug Calhoun, right, and Ralph Littlefield are starting a beekeeping club to share their experiences with other enthusiasts and to promote the hobby.

Searsmont — Two local beekeepers are hoping to generate some buzz throughout the county, as they seek to form a club to share knowledge, experiences and discuss all things bees.

Doug Calhoun and Ralph Littlefield started beekeeping for different reasons, but soon discovered a passion for the insects. Littlefield said his first experience with beekeeping was when his uncle gave him his own hive; however, Littlefield said, the hive eventually died and it wasn’t until three years ago that he decided to give it another shot.

“I do woodworking, and it dovetails well with my beekeeping by being able to make my own equipment,” Littlefield said.

Whereas Littlefield decided to become an active beekeeper after dabbling in the practice in prior years, Calhoun began his endeavor because his gardens weren’t producing as well as he would like –– particularly his squash and cucumber plants.

While searching for possible solutions to help his produce, Calhoun received a suggestion to introduce bees to his property. He decided to give it a try, and after receiving his first package of bees, Calhoun was hooked.

Calhoun and Littlefield said getting a beekeeping operation started requires ordering the bees and preparing the equipment needed to house the insects. Littlefield said the bees come in a screen box with about three pounds of the insects, which are then introduced to the hive.

Once the bees are properly situated, Calhoun and Littlefield said, the hives require general maintenance and observation to ensure that the bees are healthy and happy. Of particular danger to honeybees is the Varroa mite, a parasite that attaches to the bee and feeds on it. Over time, the bee, in its weakened state, becomes susceptible to viruses introduced by the parasite and dies.

“That’s the big problem right now,” Littlefield said.

Parasites do pose a significant threat to hives, but Calhoun noted that the environment and weather can also prove challenging, especially in a state such as Maine with long, cold winters.

During the winter, unlike other types of bees, honeybees are able to survive the colder temperatures. However, in order to survive, the hive requires at least 120 pounds of honey for the bees to eat. The bees cluster together around the queen to maintain the temperature at about 90 degrees. If there is an inadequate food supply, the bees will be unable to produce enough heat and will die.

Calhoun and Littlefield have lost their share of bees over the years, but Calhoun recalled how recently an inadequate weight on the cover of his hives proved disastrous when a storm rolled through the area.

“I didn’t have a heavy enough weight on the lid of one of the hives, and the storm a couple of weeks ago blew it off,” Calhoun explained. “Then it rained and it killed the hive.”

That incident served as a reminder that being a beekeeper is a task that requires due diligence when maintaining the hives. Littlefield said some people subscribe to the philosophy of “live and let die,” meaning they take a hands-off approach and don’t provide any additional support for the insects.

Littlefield said he prefers to step in and offer assistance when needed; mostly in cases where the bees require treatment for parasites, or if they need additional food in order to build up their stores for the winter.

When it comes to maintaining the hives, Calhoun and Littlefield said they generally check their hives once every three weeks, with each hive receiving about 30 minutes of attention. When doing so, they check to make sure the queen is healthy and laying eggs, and also check for mites and other issues.

“During my first year I was checking every week. That’s not necessarily a good thing,” Littlefield said.

The amount of maintenance required for the hives is dependent upon the season and the environment. Calhoun said the springtime is generally when beekeepers order bees and check the hives to see how they did through the winter. As early summer rolls around, beekeepers begin gearing up for the busier months of July, August and September, when the harvests begin.

State Apiarist Tony Jadczak said beekeeping is on the rise, with the  number of registered beekeepers approaching 1980s levels. In 2012, Jadczak said, the state had 861 registered beekeepers and over 10,000 hives.

Jadczak said the increasing popularity of beekeeping is because of publicity from the mid-2000s, when there was widespread media coverage of parasites that were killing off the bees, and the down economy. With more people staying at home and looking for local hobbies, Jadczak said, more people are getting into beekeeping, especially people with gardens.

The rising popularity of the practice is something Calhoun and Littlefield hope to capitalize on with the start of their club.

The club will meet on the second Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Searsmont Community Center. It’s open to anyone who is interested in beekeeping, and Calhoun and Littlefield said they hope it will provide an opportunity for people to share their knowledge and experiences, as well as to mentor people who are just getting started.

“It’s basically just about sharing information and promoting beekeeping,” Littlefield said.

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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