October 16, 2018

A Tribute to Harold B. Swan

By Peter Cowin, “The Bee Whisperer”

On January 14, 2018 Maine lost a pillar of the beekeeping community. Harold Swan was born on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1924.  He lived in the same residence in Brewer Maine for all of his 93 years. He loved nature, gardening, and most of all, bees.

At the age of 19, young Harold, ordered his first beehive from Sears Roebuck.

While Harold was in the service from 1943-1946, his father, Reginald, looked after the bees.  When he returned from service, Harold got more and more involved in bees, and together with his father formed R. B. Swan and Son, Inc.  As his numbers of hives grew he would move them to the best forage areas to collect the most honey whether that was down east to the blueberries or up to the county for clover and raspberries.

Harold was the first beekeeper to take honeybees to the blueberry barrens of Jasper Wyman and Son.  In those days, a beekeeper would get $6-8 per hive for taking his bees out to the blueberries for the May – June bloom.  As the growers saw the impact of bringing in honeybees on their crop (about 1000 pounds more blueberries per hive, per acre) more and more bees were brought in.  These day s 40 – 80,000 bee colonies are brought into Maine for blueberries, at a cost of $100-140 per hive.

Harold grew his bee and honey business eventually running over 2400 beehives.  The honey business grew so much he had to bring honey in from other beekeepers.  He kept four employees busy looking after bees or bottling 200,000 pounds of honey per year.

In 2002, Harold sold R. B. Swan and Son to Lincoln Sennett who moved Swan’s Honey to its present home in Albion, ME.  You cannot live in Maine and not have heard of Swan’s Honey or seen it in the supermarket. Harold often told me, with a smile, that he sold the Swan’s Honey company at just the wrong time.  Prices were really low, and it was hard to make a profit. Since then the demand for local honey has skyrocketed.

Since selling the honey business, Harold and his wife Hilda, kept just one or two hives and until recently a beekeeping supply business.  This kept him in touch with the hobby and hobbyists he did so much to encourage. This is how I got to know them as my local bee equipment suppliers.  Harold had been my beekeeping mentor since we met in 2003. He took great pleasure in passing on seven decades of beekeeping experience to new and experienced beekeepers alike.  I always made a point of encouraging my beekeeping students to go visit Harold while they still had the chance. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to not just learn from him but also to work more and more closely with him in the bee supply business.  I was so honored when he asked me about six years ago if I would like to take over from him in the bee and beekeeping supply business.

While years of lifting heavy honey supers had taken a toll on Harold’s back he tried to get out and about. In 2015, he and Hilda came to my house when I hosted one of Penobscot County Beekeepers open hive meetings.  We had a beautiful day for it and it was so great for so many new beekeepers to talk about bees with someone with such a wealth of experience.

Hundreds of local, and not so local, hobbyist beekeepers spent many happy hours in his store.  He always had time for people and to tell tales about his experiences. We have learned so much from him.

When Penobscot County Beekeepers hosted the MSBA annual meeting and conference in 2014 and 2015, Harold and Hilda were able to attend those meetings and enjoyed reuniting with friends from all over the state.  At the 2015 meeting, he and Hilda were honored to be awarded the MSBA Lifetime Achievement Award for their dedication to promoting beekeeping in Maine. I know that meant a lot to him.

Harold was predeceased by his son, Richard Swan in 2016.  He is survived by his wife, Hilda, his daughter, Ellen Swan Levesque and husband, Jim, of Bowdoin, his son, David Swan and wife, Jane, of Cumberland, his son Stephen and wife, Patti, of Windham and his daughter-in-law, Connie Swan, of Bradley; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  Harold loved to tell stories and often related them to his faith in Jesus Christ and he was a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Brewer. The date and time for a celebration of Harold’s life will be announced at a later date.

Not long before his passing, Harold said to his longtime friend Tom Hartranft, “Tom, I sure hope there are honeybees in Heaven.”

I am sure that if there wasn’t before, Harold Swan, the grandfather of Maine beekeeping, will have taken a few hives up there with him.

RIP my friend.

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