News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 28, 2014
What’s the buzz?
Honeybees move into Deer Isle home
Swarm relocated

Peter Cowin, the “Bee Whisperer”

Peter Cowin, the “Bee Whisperer,” removes a piece of comb from a cavity under a window sill at the home of Elisabeth Ingoldsby on Deer Isle. Bees had begun constructing a hive, and Cowin relocated the bees.Photo by Tevlin Schuetz

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Tevlin Schuetz

Historical homes are revered in New England, and not just by the people who restore and maintain them; sometimes critters can share the love.

Elisabeth Ingoldsby’s antique abode on Deer Isle was one such place: It was recently occupied by a determined swarm of honeybees.

And by mid-morning on August 20, they were going to have to buzz off.

The bees were busy, building their nest in a roof compartment that protruded from under a windowsill on the second floor. Ingoldsby had noticed them a few weeks before, she said, and knew they were up to no good (for her).

Enter Peter Cowin, president of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. He is also known in some circles as “The Bee Whisperer,” and his specialty is bee swarm removal and relocation.

If only the bees had worked out a honey-for-rent deal of some sort.

Cowin was aided by Stonington carpenter Jim Cust, who also donned the white, bee-retardant regalia. He had brought an assortment of tools, and was counted on for his knowledge of Ingoldsby’s 1859 house—one upon which he has performed restorative miracles, she said.

The bees had found their way into a wall compartment via a gap between boards under the sill, and Cowin and Cust needed to probe the depths of that channel to determine a course of action.

But first things first. Cowin stuffed dry pine needles in a curious-looking can with a cone-shaped lid and a book lung and then proceeded to set them alight. The smoke was instantaneous, and before climbing the ladder, he said the bee smoker smoke “blocks the [bees’] alarm receptors, and they fill with honey.” This makes the bees much more docile.

Cowin assured Ingoldsby that the swarm had only recently moved in, and they would prove to be a “small” colony, around 15,000 in number. Swarming season begins in late May and continues through the summer, he said, and the bees travel lightly before hunkering down in earnest to reproduce, build more modules of comb and crank out honey.

After giving the bees a billowing dose of smoke, Cowin produced a length of wire and poked it through the entrance. The smoked-out bees seemed detached, disinterested.

After descending the ladder, Cowin said that the comb inside must be removed and the area scraped, or else it will be “like a ‘for rent’ sign for bees.” The compartment will need to be filled with insulation and sealed.

Cust ascended the ladder and pried off a shingle or two before getting into wood, which he cut out with a saw. Bees hovered during the whole procedure but held their fire.

The enlarged opening revealed a section of comb hanging in the corner of the compartment, crawling with bees.

Cust and Cowin traded places, and the “Bee Whisperer” fired up his bee vacuum, a shop vac equipped with a wooden box with a Plexiglas panel and an extended suction tube. The bees would be safely sucked into this contraption, Cowin said.

As the bees disappeared down the tube, several at a time, Cowin extracted the fragile, golden comb. There was goldenrod pollen stored in some of the cells, plus a few larvae. Some tiny droplets of honey were there, too. He returned to the ground and awarded the comb to Ingoldsby.

After a while, the windowed bee box filled with bees. Cust and Cowin spotted the queen bee, despite the slim odds of picking her out of thousands. Cowin said that he had seen a queen only twice before.

While Cust repaired the opening, Cowin talked about the challenges of beekeeping.

During the 1980s, Cowin said, beekeeping changed from being an easy hobby to one requiring a fair amount of knowledge about the threats to bees and hive health. He cited the Verona mite, which parasitizes developing larvae, sapping the strength of the bees by 25 percent. These mites have almost eliminated wild honey bees, he said.

Colony collapse disorder is also a big problem, in which adult bees leave the hive and never return. It has caused bee mortality overall to increase from 25 to 50 percent a year for the past seven years, according to Cowin.

It is difficult to determine the direct cause of the disorder, as many factors seem to be involved, Cowin said, but he cited theories blaming the widespread use of pesticides.

Interest in beekeeping is increasing, however. Cowin said he had over 200 students take adult education beekeeping classes this spring and summer.

Cowin added, “There has been more publicity about bees and bee problems in the last five years than in the previous 50.”

The Maine State Beekeepers Association boasts 400 members, with 100 of those having joined in the past year, Cowin said.

Cowin said his organization will corral a swarm of bees and relocate them at no cost, but removing bees from a home is a service that does come with a fee, due to the equipment and time spent.

Ingoldsby wasn’t bothered. It’s true that all she got was a bread slice-sized piece of comb for her troubles, and with no honey to boot. But she had an enjoyable experience, and she has yet another great story to share about her house, she said.

As for the bees, Cowin said in a follow-up phone conversation that they had been relocated to “a bigger premises” down the coast in Camden, and “given combs full of honey.”

Pretty sweet deal.

Peter Cowin  removes bees using a vacuum apparatus

Peter Cowin, the “Bee Whisperer,” removes bees using a vacuum apparatus. The bees had occupied a cavity under a window sill at the home of Elisabeth Ingoldsby on Deer Isle and had to be relocated.

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz
Peter Cowin, the “Bee Whisperer”

Peter Cowin, the “Bee Whisperer,” removes a piece of comb from a cavity under a window sill at the home of Elisabeth Ingoldsby on Deer Isle. Bees had begun constructing a hive, and Cowin relocated the bees.Photo by Tevlin Schuetz

Photo by Tevlin Schuetz