Bees have been having a rough time of it. In addition to a long-standing infestation of deadly mites, hives were subjected to a particularly cold winter this year and blueberry growers and other farmers will have to import thousands of out-of-state hives to pollinate their crops. Overseeing that process and encouraging Maine beekeepers is the job of Tony Jadczak, the state apiarist and bee inspector.

Jadczak started beekeeping as a teenager, taking over about 12 hives that had been tended by his grandfather and uncles. He was first attracted to the insects by warnings from his parents to “stay away from the bees. You don’t say that to small boys.”

Q: What was it about bees that interested you?

A: It just fascinated me, everything about them, swarming, the way they work, all those smells and activities, it’s almost mesmerizing.

Q: We hear a lot about declines in hive populations over the winter. How was it this year?

A: This winter was extremely difficult. Even with good healthy hives, there was a lot of loss around the state. The bees eat more honey when they’re cold. They eat honey and shiver to keep warm.

I’m hearing more and more from beekeepers who are losing substantial numbers of their hives. I would say, the midsized beekeepers are losing anywhere between 30 and 75 percent. The bees fared better in the southern part of the state, but losses were higher than normal elsewhere. It was largely weather-related, but the mites were also out of control. April is tough because it’s the turnover of the hives – they’re starting to brood up and the bees that went into winter at the end of their lives are going to die off at a higher rate. We call it spring dwindle. Also, last year, the hives started bringing in pollen by March 10. We’ll see if they get it in by April 10 this year.

Q: Why is winter so hard for the bees?

A: We need good flying weather for the bees to get pollen and they need water too. There’s also a lot of dysentery among the bees this year because they couldn’t take cleansing flights (when they fly away from the hive to defecate). That didn’t really occur. March was pretty tough because this March was brutal.

Q: Are the bees affected by heavy snow?

A: The snow is actually good, because when the hives are buried, they’re insulated. But we had a really cold snap in January before the snow fell. In December, it was pretty good and they took cleansing flights then, but they really needed it February and March. Their metabolism is ramping up and they have to cleanse themselves. A number of hives that actually starved to death had honey in the hives. Because they start to brood and they need to keep that part of the hive around 92 degrees for the brooding, they won’t abandon the brood to (eat) the honey.

Q: How bad is the mite problem?

A: The varreo mite is the major problem globally. The only place left relatively clean is Australia. They have a strict quarantine there. We have geneticists working on lines of bees that show some tolerance or resistance. We’re using miticides and there are management techniques that can keep mites at bay. The goal is to have to the last brood in late summer or fall to be relatively mite-free. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the key to success. I tell the beekeepers to think of it as chemotherapy, where everything has a side effect.

Q: What about bringing in bees for pollination?

A: We’re bringing in more bees, primarily to pollinate the blueberries. When I was hired in ’83, about 11,000 hives were brought in. As the blueberry crop has grown, we’ve brought in more bees – last year we brought in 83,000 hives. We also use them for cranberries and other crops. Guys in California want to bring them here now; I told them they need to bring a snowplow. They have to get the bees out of farm areas (because farmers are spreading pesticides), but there’s nowhere to put them now.

Q: Do you think they’ll be brought in later than most years?

A: We’re kind of anticipating that this year. Beekeeping is farming, and one of the reasons the bees are migratory is because of winters like this. Our bees have gone out to California to help with the almonds (crops) and some are in Florida now. Quite a few are in Georgia now, too. We have resident migratory beekeepers and nonresident migratory beekeepers and most of the bees that service Maine are nonresident.

Q: How do you make sure the bees from out of state don’t bring diseases or more mites?

A: We have reciprocal agreements with states that issue health certificates for their bees. I issue permits for Maine – I look at a percentage of bees and issue a health certificate basically saying this is what I see.

Q: What else does your job involve?

A: The job entails regulatory functions, licensing and permitting, writing out health certificates and a lot of education, particularly this time of year, at clubs or bee schools. Now and then, I get involved in a little research, collaborating with the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and primarily lately looking at mite controls.

When I was hired by Maine in 1983, I was hired to work with beekeepers and get a beekeeping industry going. American foulbrood (disease) was going around. It’s called foulbrood because it has a terrible odor about it, so much of those first years on the job was trying to clean up that disease. The focus switched in 1985 due to the introduction of the honey bee tracheal mite. We had to kill the hives that had that parasite. That only lasted a little while, but within a few years, we lost about a million hives in the U.S. It was pretty devastating. Then the varroa mite was found in ’87 in the U.S. We’ve been dealing with this thing for about 25 years or so now. When we hear about catastrophic bee loss, it’s directly related to this parasite.

Q: What’s the overall state of beekeeping in Maine?

A: There’s a tremendous resurgence in hobby beekeepers. In 1984, we had 802 registered beekeepers and a little more than 10,000 hives and in 2014, we finally got back to that number. We hit rock bottom in 2003 with 5,000 hives. With more tools to control the mites, the success rate has gone up.

Q: How often have you been stung?

A: I really couldn’t tell you, but I would have to say thousands of times. It still hurts, but I don’t swell up and itch and burn or have an allergic reaction. I get more irritated by a mosquito or black fly bite. Yellow jackets are different, but I’m pretty much immune to honey bee venom.

Q: Do you like honey?

A: Oh, yeah. I use it in tea and it’s great on ice cream or plain yogurt. My favorite is wildflower, which is a nice, mild honey. I love it, just like the bears.

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