Erin MacGregor-Forbes: Master Beekeeper

From her base in Portland, Maine Forbes is most likely to be found tending to the sustainable beekeeping operation Overland Apiaries, demonstrating how to install a package of honey bees, and enthusiastically sharing information with other beekeepers.
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It's no secret to novice hobby beekeepers in Maine that EAS Certified Master Beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes knows her way around honey bees.

From her base in Portland, Maine Forbes is most likely to be found amidst a whirlwind of activity between tending to the sustainable beekeeping operation Overland Apiaries she runs with fellow Master Beekeeper Cindy Bee, demonstrating how to install a package of honey bees, and enthusiastically sharing information with other beekeepers.

Little by little the number of hobby beekeepers in Maine has been growing. According to Maine State Apiarist Tony Jadczak, the number of registered beekeepers in the state has grown from 412 in 2007 to 567 in 2009 and as of October 1, 859 in 2012. Forbes has simultaneously encouraged and educated many of these beekeepers as an instructor of annual bee schools and the creator of several beginner "how to" beekeeper videos .

Here's what Erin MacGregor-Forbes had to say about education, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants she received in 2009 and 2010 to compare honey bee colony strength and survivability between nucleus and package started colonies, becoming a "citizen scientist," and adding three Warre hives to her apiary of 100 Langstroth hives.

Having just wrapped up a two-and-a-half year term as president of the Maine State Beekeeper Association, what are the biggest hurdles you see Maine beekeepers facing?

Education is the biggest hurdle for Maine beekeepers and beekeepers throughout the county. There are so many new beekeepers getting into the craft, and not enough educational resources. Beekeeping is much more complicated than just "adopting a beehive". You really need to be able to understand the biology of what is going on in the colony because the bees can't just tell you when things aren't going well. Beekeeping is a skill best taught hands-on or in classroom. It isn't easy to learn from books or the Internet. We are working on improving the beekeeping educational opportunities in Maine. We've got five new Master Beekeepers, and lots of new bee schools starting, including Intermediate and Advanced Intermediate classes. That's going to be a huge help to our beekeepers and their bees.

How do you see the results of your SARE project affecting New England beekeepers? What has been the most unexpected result of your research thus far?

I hope to show that queen origin really can make a huge impact on the overall health of our colonies here in the North. I think the most exciting result of our work has been to show how a very simple management technique (requeening with a northern raised queen) can increase package colony survival rates by nearly 50 percent.

Tell us about becoming a "citizen scientist" helping Wayne Esaias, a veteran oceanographer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, collect information on nectar flow.

I met Wayne several years ago at EAS and he told me about his project. I've been wanting to provide data for him for a while, but needed to find a good scale that will work for my operation. Last winter I finally found the antique stand scale on Craigslist, but I found it in the late winter when it was too late to move the bees. Then this spring we were just too busy to get it going. Finally this fall my husband built the structure for the scale for my birthday present (to keep the snow and ice off the scale, so it can be used all year). We will move one of our strongest colonies onto it around Thanksgiving when we finish getting our colonies ready for winter.

What has been your experience with the three Warre hives you populated this past summer as compared to your Langstroth hives?

So far, the Warre hives are doing really well, but we haven't been through winter yet. I populated all three of them with very strong swarms that we collected, and I fed them nearly constantly from installation until mid-September. At this point they all have lots of beautiful drawn comb, tons of honey, and a good bee population. I treated all three for mites with Apilife Var, the same treatment I use in all of my other colonies. I expect their survival rate to be comparable to the other vertical (Langstroth) hives. We did have a little bit of comb breakage in the smallest Warre (due to lack of frame) but I don't expect that to cause any problems other than to be a bit of a nuisance in inspecting.

New beekeepers have to purchase a lot of specialty gear. What is the one tool you use most frequently?

I never go anywhere without my veil, smoker, hive tool and toothpick (to inspect for signs of disease and mite loads). 95+ percent of my colony inspections involve only those four tools.

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