Maine Home Garden News — March 2011

March is the month to . . .

By Richard Brzozowski, Extension Educator, Cumberland County,

A Honey Bee’s Winter

By Lauren St. Germain, Home Horticulture Coordinator, UMaine Extension, Franklin County,

While some solitary insects and animals in the Maine woods do hibernate, honey bees do not. Honey bees are the only insects in the Northern Hemisphere who survive the winter by storing food and keeping themselves warm.

According to Carol Cottrill, secretary for the Western Maine Beekeepers Association, “One of the biggest myths about honey bees is that they hibernate without eating or doing anything. People think they shut down.” While this is true for some bees, such as the Bumble bee queen who overwinters in the ground, it is not true for the honey bee, who remains very active throughout the winter.

The honey bee colony consists of three different castes of bees. The queen, whose purpose is to lay eggs, the female workers, who take care of the queen and do all of the work in the hive, and the male drones whose function is to mate the young queens.

In the fall, when temperatures start to go below 50F, the bees cannot fly so well. They start to slow down and prepare to overwinter in the hive. Because of limited resources such as food and space, not all the bees in the colony will overwinter. Cottrill said, “The female worker bees will ceremoniously remove the drones from the hive. They grab them by the legs and dump them out of the hive where they freeze and die. The guards won’t let them back in.”

The females cluster around the queen at the center of the hive. They pack together by entering the empty brooding cells separated by thin layers of wax. There are two layers to the cluster. The core bees, those closest to the queen, shiver using the muscles in their thorax which they normally use to control their wings. This shivering creates heat. The mantle bees, those in the outer part of the cluster, normally do not shiver but are packed around the inner cluster tightly to create insulation. As they get cold they will move in closer to the center of the cluster and start shivering as the bees inside will move to the outer layer. The cluster will also change position within the hive as temperatures drop and food stores are depleted. The bees’ movement and shifting continues with the objective to keep the temperature around the queen approximately 90F all winter long!

All this winter activity requires energy which is generated from consumption of the stored honey. In the fall, beekeepers must be sure to leave enough honey in the hives. “Maine beekeepers leave an average of 80-100 lbs of honey in the hive for the bees to over winter where in the South they may use half that. The amount the bees will need is variable in that the more active the bees are, the more honey they consume, so it can get tricky,” Cotttrill said. In years where there is unusual weather, for example, if there is a long, warm fall season, bees get forced into the hive later than usual. While this gives bees warm temperatures and more time outside, there is no pollen or nectar for them to gather. This means they are out flying, using energy, eating more, eating winter stores. Beekeepers may need to feed the bees honey or sugar syrup to aid in production of an adequate winter store.

In late winter, if outdoor temperatures reach around the mid 40’s, the bees will break their cluster and try to find something to eat, or if temperatures remain too cold for too long, they could starve to death within the cluster. Beekeepers will start checking hives to determine food stores as early as mid January. The hives cannot be opened this time of year because it will chill the bees and disrupt the cluster which could put the queen at risk. Luckily stored honey is heavy and beekeepers can estimate remaining honey stores if they tip up the hive and see how heavy it feels.

If food stores are low the beekeepers will feed the bees in a variety of ways. Disease free frames of honey can be positioned in the hive but that option is often not available. Sugar water should only be fed in the fall because “The bees don’t like popsicles,” Cottrill laughed. “Some people will sprinkle in dried sugar but the bees don’t use it as efficiently as they would candy boards.” Candy boards contain a fudge-like consistency sugar and water which is cooked into a hard sheet. This board is used to replace the inner cover of the hive.

The bees’ winter activity consists of more than eating and staying warm. They also try to maintain some kind of hygiene in the hive and closer to spring begin laying eggs. For sanitation purposes bees will not defecate in the hive. “They hold it and on a sunny day, approaching mid-forties and up, the bees will do a cleansing flight. They usually will not die from holding it too long but if they get dysentery it could mess up the hive,” Cottrill said. The tell tale signs of a cleansing flight would be yellow spots on the snow outside the hive, and possibly corpses of those bees who did not survive the cold flight.

The queen will start laying eggs at a time determined by different stimuli for different types of bees. According to Cottrill, “In Maine the timing is often dependent upon availability of nectar and pollen. The bees will collect pollen from pussy willows and early maples if days are warm enough for them to fly, and this will get the queen laying. For Italian honey bees the timing is heavily influenced by day length so they will get going a little earlier.” At first, the queen will start laying in a circular pattern in cells within the winter-cluster, which will later develop into worker bees. Over the course of the year a healthy queen will lay around 200,000 more eggs!

The advent of mites, disease, urbanization, and cold weather here in Maine are significant challenges to the life span of our honey bees, and it is nearly impossible for them to survive without the aid of a beekeeper. Although native pollinators do exist, continued pollination of our fruit and vegetables by non-native honey bees depends upon the beekeepers’ dedication and the honey bees’ determination to survive.

For more information about bees or how to enhance their habitats, see Bulletin #7153,  Understanding Native Bees, the Great Pollinators, or visit .

Getting a Jump Start on the Garden

By Caragh B. Fitzgerald, Extension Educator, Kennebec County,

seedlings started inside

Our family is eagerly awaiting spring and the chores of the garden rather than the snow shovel. It’s time to make room on the shelf for plant pots and grow lights and to start some seedlings! Putting seedlings rather than seeds in the garden gives us a head start on the season. For hot weather plants like tomatoes and peppers, it’s absolutely essential. We also like to try new varieties of plants, and starting our own seeds lets us do that easily. It can save money, too, especially if we only want one or two of a certain variety.

How about you? Certainly, starting your own seedlings takes space, time, and energy. But if you’re interested in trying some unusual varieties and maybe saving some money, here are some pointers for successful seed starting:

Use good seed. One great advantage to starting your own seeds is that you can grow the specific varieties you want in the quantities you want. You probably have some new seeds already. Most seeds from last year will be OK to use as long as they were stored in a cool, dry place. If you’re not sure about their quality, you can run a quick germination test.

Use clean containers. It’s alright to re-use plastic containers as long as you sterilize them. Use a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Let them soak, then scrub them well to remove any dried material. This will reduce the likelihood your plants will succumb to diseases like damping off.

Use the right type of growing medium. You probably know that garden soil isn’t a good idea — it’s too heavy and may have soil-borne diseases, never mind weed seeds. A soil-less mix, such as peat and either vermiculite or perlite is best.

Provide enough light. To grow good seedlings you want 14 – 16 hours of light per day. Even a bright window may not be sufficiently bright, and your seedlings may get leggy (tall and spindly). You can supplement with fluorescent lights if you need to.

Start seeds at the right time. March is too early to start tomatoes. Unless you have a hoophouse, wait until mid-April or so for them. Calculate the seed starting time using the days to germination and the days needed to grow to appropriate size. Many seed packets or catalogs will help you by saying something like “Sow indoors 4-6 weeks before last frost.” This time is then subtracted from the estimated last frost date to determine sowing date. If you prefer a calculator to do the work for you, see Johnny’s Selected Seeds online calculator, which includes information for vegetables and many flowers. If you’re in the southern Maine region, Jean English, of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, included a great schedule for starting vegetables in her 2009 article “Huge Growth Potential, Pounds of Dividends: It’s Time to Order Seeds.”

Watch the temperature. Most plants need warm temperatures to germinate, usually 65 – 70°. That’s true even for cool-season plants. The top of your refrigerator can be a good spot, as can near the wood stove. Heat mats can be good options, too. Be careful if you’re putting the plants in the windowsill — it may be draftier and colder than you realize.

Try something new. Remember, one of the great benefits of starting your own seeds is the diversity you can get compared to what’s at your local garden center. Maybe you want a couple of new heirloom tomatoes, one of the purple or orange cauliflowers, or something unusual, like artichoke. Put these in your garden plan and enjoy.

Start early crops early, too. Like many of us, you are probably eager for the first harvest from the garden. Spinach and greens from the cole (broccoli) family can tolerate cool weather and some frosts. However, the soil is too cold for them to germinate well immediately after the snow melts. (Like most plants, they germinate much better at warm soil temperatures — between 60° and 85° for them.) You can start these plants indoors this month, then plant them in the garden in April. Depending on the variety, you could be harvesting late in the month or early in May. You may even want to consider creating a mini-greenhouse by using wire hoops or low tunnels to support row cover or plastic. The higher temperatures underneath will speed plant growth. Just remember to secure the edges and to ventilate the structure so temperatures don’t get too high. See UMaine Extension Bulletin #2752, Extending the Garden Season, for more information.

Starting your own seedlings is a great way to start gardening early. It can give you higher and earlier yields, let you try more varieties, save you money, and encourage you to experiment. So, get your materials and planting schedule together, and enjoy!

For more information on seed starting, see UMaine Extension Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Home Garden News is designed to equip home gardeners with practical, timely information.

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Maine Home Garden News was created in response to a continued increase in requests for information on gardening and includes timely and seasonal tips, as well as research-based articles on all aspects of gardening. Articles are written by UMaine Extension specialists, educators, and horticulture professionals, as well as Master Gardener Volunteers from around Maine, with Professor Richard Brzozowski serving as editor.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2011
Published and distributed in furtherance of Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914, by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Land Grant University of the state of Maine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Cooperative Extension and other agencies of the U.S.D.A. provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.

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