by Lawrence Furbish, York County Beekeeper
My first exposure to beekeeping came in the early 1950s when my dad kept bees on land we owned down behind the Country Club in Sanford. I was too young to help him, but I remember several things: his bee veil, long canvas gloves that came up to his elbows, and the smoker. I also remember him getting called when a package of bees he had ordered escaped in the Post Office and he had to go over and capture them. I remember the two white beehives and how they looked under a large pine tree. I believe he occasionally fed his bees, but I can’t remember how. I’m also sure he rarely went inside the hives and left the bees alone to do their thing. Dad didn’t have an extractor and so he harvested section honey. I remember the wonderful smell of the comb and honey in the square wooden boxes.
In the early 1980s I was living in rural Connecticut and had a friend who was a beekeeper. I became interested in beekeeping and my friend encouraged and helped me. I ordered kits from A. I. Root Company, assembling and painting them in the winter. In early June, I got a call from my friend and we drove out to a farm where there was a swarm in the top of a very large tree. We managed to capture it, although it was quite a production. When we checked the hive several days later, there were no eggs and my friend told me we had somehow missed the queen. I was able to buy a queen (the bees were Italian) and successfully introduced her into the hive. This hive ended up being very strong and I was able to harvest honey the first year. My friend had an extractor, and it was a real thrill when I spread the first of my honey on a piece of toast.
I never took a course in beekeeping, but I read several books and my friend was quite knowledgeable. There were no diseases or conditions that I ever heard about other than European Foul Brood, and that wasn’t common. I rarely went into the hive and did so only to check that there were healthy brood and eggs, and to harvest honey. I basically left the bees alone. I didn’t feed them or wrap them for winter. There were no screened bottom boards, we didn’t drill holes in the hive bodies, and I don’t remember using an entrance reducer except during winter.
The next spring, I had the opportunity to capture another swarm — this time on my own, and my inexperience showed. The swarm was on an arborvitae and when I tried to shake it into the box, the bees clung to the thick foliage of the tree with tenacity and were not at all happy about what I was doing to them. I eventually succeeded and even got the queen this time. Then I made a big mistake. I needed another hive and needed it quickly, so I bought some used equipment from an old beekeeper. He assured me that the equipment was fine. During the summer the new hive and my old hive seemed much weaker. I didn’t harvest any honey, and by fall, I knew something was wrong. My friend came over and when we went into the hives he announced that it was Foul Brood. I knew that you could try to scorch the inside of the hives, but that this wasn’t foolproof. I opted to burn both hives. Soon after I moved and gave up beekeeping.
As soon as I moved back to Maine, I started thinking about keeping bees again, but I wasn’t sure where I would put the hives and I wondered if the process had changed. I signed up for the Intermediate Beekeeping course taught by Larry Peiffer and it was a real eye-opener. In the spring, I purchased two nucs of Carniolan bees and they seem to be doing very well, although I have not harvested any honey, opting to be sure they have enough for the winter.
Beekeeping has become so complicated. At times I feel overwhelmed by the many diseases and conditions bees are subject to. How do they ever survive? I am currently treating my two colonies for mites, something I’d never heard of in the old days, and I was feeding them during the nectar dearth. I have been going into my hives every seven to ten days to be sure everything is okay. Sometimes I wonder how beekeepers succeeded in the old days or whether we are making the whole process needlessly complicated. Anyway, I’m enjoying my “girls” a lot. What endlessly fascinating creatures they are and so much fun to watch and wonder at.