Erin MacGregor-Forbes normally harvests 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of honey in the fall. This year she got none. Photos by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Erin MacGregor-Forbes normally harvests 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of honey in the fall. This year she got none. Photos by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Wells have run dry. Lawns have turned brown. Vegetables are smaller and fewer. Alongside these victims of this year’s drought, add another: the fall honey crop.

“Basically, the fall crop was a bust,” said John Cotter, who has just wrapped up a season of contract work as bee inspector for Maine’s Department of Agriculture.

Beekeepers – from hobbyist to mid-size to commercial operations – report fall honey harvests down anywhere from half to total production, though several added that good spring flows helped even out the year. The problem is most severe in southern Maine, specifically York and Cumberland counties, which have suffered from extreme drought conditions.

Portland beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes, who sells honey from her 150 hives under the label Overland, says she’d typically harvest 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of honey in the fall. This year? “No fall harvest at all,” she said, a gross loss she estimated at $20,000.

According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, there are 8,500 hives and 1,000 beekeepers in Maine. The state’s largest commercial beekeepers – and there aren’t many – are in the north, so the good news is that Mainers are unlikely to run out of local honey before the next extraction, next summer.

Not so fast – fans of local honey are often geographically exacting, seeking out honey made in their own county, town, even on their own street. Such hyper-local supplies may well run short.

The state doesn’t keep data on the total honey harvest, and federal numbers reveal little in a state largely made up of small producers, according to Lincoln Sennett of Swan Honey in Albion, Maine’s largest retail honey producer. “There’s not really any data to go to,” he said.

Sennett’s own hives in central Maine yielded just half the honey of a normal year, some 40 pounds per hive. But his hives in northern Maine made up for that, he said, “so overall we are OK.”

HONEY 101

To make honey, honeybees gather nectar from flowers, bring it back to their hives and evaporate out the water by fanning their wings. The bees use the resulting honey for food, generously sharing any leftovers with humans. This year, there was a hitch: The drought slowed flowers’ nectar production to a trickle.

Erin MacGregor-Forbes points out the queen in one of her hives as the bees prepare for a long Maine winter.

Erin MacGregor-Forbes points out the queen in one of her hives as the bees prepare for a long Maine winter.

Maine beekeepers typically remove honey from their hives twice a year. They harvest the spring honey in July, the fall honey in mid-September. The taste varies by season; spring honey is mild and pale, while fall honey – coming mainly from goldenrod and aster – is dark and robust.

“July was a great harvest. Everybody was just thrilled,” said Meghan Gaven, who owns The Honey Exchange in Portland with her husband, Philip. “And then it stopped raining. Plants need water to produce liquid. Without water in the ground, plants can’t produce nectar and without nectar, bees can’t produce honey.”

Typically, the fall honey crop in Maine is the larger by far, Philip Gaven said. This year, the reverse was true.

The couple keep 20 hives themselves, a few in Portland, most in Willard Beach in South Portland, where they live. Their honey take this year was 100 pounds total, “significantly less than half of what we would expect in an average year,” Philip Gaven said, “and an average year is only about half of a good year.”

BEES COULD FACE FOOD SHORTFALL

Setting aside honey-loving humans, what did the drought mean for the bees? In short, it made it harder for them to prepare for winter. Bees need about 80 pounds of honey on a hive to survive the long Maine winter. If the nectar shortage meant they couldn’t make enough, or if beekeepers removed too much honey before realizing the extent of the drought, then the bees are facing a food shortfall. Which is why many beekeepers in Cumberland and York counties have been feeding their bees sugar syrup since late summer.

Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes checks the level of sugar water in the hives on her Rosemont property. MacGregor-Forbes has had to supplement the bees' food with syrup because of this year's drought.

Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes checks the level of sugar water in the hives on her Rosemont property. MacGregor-Forbes has had to supplement the bees’ food with syrup because of this year’s drought. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s not as good for them as nectar, but it’s better than starvation,” said Karen Thurlow-Kimball of New Moon Apiary, which keeps 59 hives in Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Freeport, Durham and New Gloucester. Her own fall crop was down by at least two-thirds.

Thurlow-Kimball has been raising bees for 40 years, so she’s comfortable making adjustments for whatever Mother Nature sends her way. But she and others said it’s not so easy for Maine’s new beekeepers. There are a lot of those – the number of beekeepers has more than doubled in just the last decade, according to figures from the state Department of Agriculture.

“Beekeepers that don’t have that experience, if they are going by the book – feed now, take your supers (boxes that hold excess honey for human consumption) off now – they’ve missed the boat,” Thurlow-Kimball said, “because you can’t standardize beekeeping.”

She’s had several calls from new beekeepers just this week asking her how to rescue starving bees. She fears it’s already too late. “Starvation happens way before you notice it,” she said. “If you notice it, it’s beyond bad.”

Even less drastic scenarios spell trouble. Hives that don’t head into winter with strong, stout bees probably won’t make it to spring.

How was her own season? “I call it a good year because my bees were healthy. They all survived,” Thurlow-Kimball said. And her honey take? “It was poorer than usual, or I’ll be poorer than usual,” she laughed.

Erin MacGregor-Forbes ignites pine needles for her bee smoker. The smoke is used to calm the bees before she inspects the hives.

Erin MacGregor-Forbes ignites pine needles for her bee smoker. The smoke is used to calm the bees before she inspects the hives. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sennett said something similar: “The bees seem to be fine. They just didn’t make as much honey for me.”

For honey producers, the loss is threefold. They have less honey to sell. They need to pay for sugar, and feeding the hives requires extra work. Will the price go up to reflect these complications? It depends whom you ask. Yes, no and maybe.

STRESSED OUT

Honeybees haven’t had it easy in the last decade. The threats they face include colony collapse disorder; pesticides; habitat loss; and invasive plants, which out-compete the natives that make for more nutritious forage. Add to these, the drought.

So longterm, should we be worried?

“The short answer is yes,” said Peter Richardson, a hobby beekeeper with nine hives who teaches beekeeping in Falmouth for the Cooperative Extension. “I’m not a scientist, but when you have a huge change in weather patterns, which seems to be happening in our world, it’s upsetting to every wild organism. Honeybees have a lot more stressors than they did 20 years ago, then to add something like this on top of it just makes it a lot more challenging.”

Richardson got no honey this year.

MacGregor-Forbes, who is board president of the Eastern Apicultural Society, spoke precisely and eloquently about the challenge the drought posed not only to the honeybees but also to the many wild pollinators – butterflies and wild bees among them – that can’t rely on sugar syrup handouts when the nectar stops flowing. She fears the drought is linked to climate change. She hopes she’s wrong.

“Hopefully,” she said almost wistfully, “this is a fluke.”

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @pgrodinsky.

 

Correction: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Oct. 15, 2016 to correct the location of Willard Beach.