ANSON— There were still several feet of snow on the ground at Runamuk Acres in early April, when farmer Samantha Burns shoveled a path to five beehives that have managed to survive the winter, less than half the number she started with.

“This is the hardest time of the year because there’s no food available,” Burns said, lifting a cover off a wooden hive box and placing a pollen patty inside. The patty contains nutrients for the hungry bees.

Beekeepers are taking stock after a long winter that dumped 50 inches of snow on their hives and brought long periods of frigid cold. For longtime beekeepers, such harsh weather is nothing new. For Burns and other small operators, the weather added worry.

Burns and her husband, Keith, moved to their 50-acre farm in Anson in December; they plan to grow vegetables and fruits, and raise goats, chickens, pigs – and bees. But in early April, when this reporter visited, the snow prevented them from getting much done on any of those fronts. The Burns family lost seven of 12 beehives, the most serious problem the young farm has yet faced. Burns attributed their demise to a lethal combination of starvation over the winter and possible colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, the disease has killed about one-third of commercial honeybees in the United States each year.

The state department of agriculture does not keep statistics on winter survival rates, although beekeepers can submit voluntary reports that the department analyzes in late summer. For now the story appears mixed.

“It seems to be all over the place,” said Frank Drummond, professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine. “Some people have experienced considerable losses and some people have done OK. I expect it will be one of those winters that wasn’t great for the bees but also wasn’t catastrophic. There may have been some significant losses, but it varied from person to person.”

Burns and some other beekeepers – both commercial and hobbyists – worry that the long, harsh winter will harm spring honey production, and this after periods of rain and heat slowed production last summer. There are short-term fixes for hive losses, such as splitting a hive into two, though the process is not sustainable over the long term, the beekeepers say. But bees in some parts of Maine have done surprisingly well.

One thing everybody agrees on – when a harsh winter hits, beekeepers work much harder to keep the hives alive. Tony Bachelder, a Buckfield-based beekeeper who keeps 614 hives around the state, said he lost only 15 this winter. Mark Cooper, a Windham beekeeper, lost about 15 out of 75 hives, slightly more than normal, while New Sharon beekeeper Joe Rankin estimates he lost 20 of 75 hives. Asked to evaluate hives around Maine as a whole, state apiarist Tony Jadczak said, “From what I’m seeing, I’m surprised at how good the bees look… At this time I’m pleased with what I’ve seen.”

Cooper, owner of Cooper Royal Heritage Farm, was among those who struggled to sustain his hives. “I’m going to attribute a lot of it to the longer periods of cold weather,” he said.

When beekeepers take honey from hives for human consumption in the fall, they leave enough to feed the bees in the winter. When winter sets in, bees tend to cluster in the hive, Cooper explained, bunched together around bees in the center that produce heat and keep the others warm. As the bees on the outside get cold, they move to the middle and the ones on the inside of the cluster move to the outside. But when it’s too cold outside, the bees don’t move, so even with honey on the frames, the bees never reach it.

“It can be a matter of moving a few inches,” Cooper said, “but if it’s too cold they won’t move and they can starve to death. That’s what we’ve seen. We haven’t checked all of them that we’ve lost but the ones we’ve looked at that appears to be the case – plenty of food stores but no warm weather to get them to move.”

In a long winter, bees can also run out of food, so beekeepers need to monitor supplies late in the season, giving their hives extra food to help keep them strong and resistant to disease. With 15 inches of snow on the ground in New Sharon earlier this month, Bachelder donned snowshoes and pulled a sled, hauling honey to the bees.

Beekeeper David Smith in Hope said Maine beekeepers have been dealing with harsh winters as long as beekeeping has existed. Losses can be prevented, he said.

“A good location is critical,” Smith said, describing the ideal spot for hives – sunny with little wind and relatively high elevation. “Losses are mainly due to mites and not the cold,” he said. “In the big picture of things, it’s how the bees go into the winter that determines how they come out.”

As for Rankin, he hopes to regenerate new hives early this spring to make up for his losses. It’s a tricky process and has to be timed just right to avoid the bees’ natural tendencies to swarm, or split their own hives. But by removing the eggs (what beekeepers call the brood) and bees from a hive, shaking the hive and putting some of the bees in a new hive with pollen and honey supplies and a new queen, the beekeeper can turn one hive into two.

But the process, repeated year after year, can weaken the hives and slow honey production.

“Beekeepers are the only ones that can really do that, but even we can’t sustain it forever,” said Rankin. “It’s really tough to do that, every year trying to make up losses. Can you imagine if a cattle producer lost 15 percent of their herd each year, or 20 or 30 percent? They’d be out of business.”

Contact Rachel Ohm at 612-2368 or at:

rohm@centralmaine.com