HARPSWELL — The days leading up to her visit to the hives at Two Coves Farm had been rainy and cold, so beekeeper Judith Stanton wasn’t expecting to see the bees flying at all.
But as she made her way across the field, veil secured and smoker in hand, she saw the bees were crawling in and out of the hives, their furry legs coated in orange pollen. She peeked inside the lid and set it back down.
“They’re just the most fascinating organism anywhere,” she said. “When I’m working in a hive, time kind of just stands still, gets suspended. It’s a very peaceful thing to do.”
Although the bees were still out collecting the last of the season’s nectar and pollen, Stanton is done harvesting honey for the year because flowers are growing scarce. The bees’ final offering, collected in early fall, is now on sale at the Vegetable Corner on Harpswell Neck Road in the jars labeled “Harpswell Honey: made by the hardworking honey bees of Harpswell Neck.”
Stanton, who divides her time between New Jersey and Harpswell, began keeping bees seven years ago, a decision she said was inspired by trips to her relatives’ farms as a child.
“I just liked the idea of taking care of animals … and I’ve never had enough property to do sheep or goats,” she said.
As a gardener, bee behavior appealed to her. She admired the pollination aspect of their work.
So she started reading up about bee keeping and found a mentor in New Jersey who had dozens of hives.
Soon enough she had her own, although her first year as bee keeper was not without mistakes.
“The first year that you have a hive you really shouldn’t take any honey off of it,” she explained, because the bees might not have produced enough honey yet to feed them throughout the winter.
“It’s really hard to do, it’s really tempting,” she said. “I did it when I was a beginner and my bees died.”
Stanton is more experienced now, and it shows. She knows how to avoid getting stung (don’t bump the hive or eat bananas before bee keeping), and what to do if it happens (puff smoke on the area or rub it with grass to disperse the pheromones bees release when irritated).
She has increased the number of hives she keeps to 15, which are spread throughout Harpswell Neck on farms, near flower gardens or in fields. They are about two miles apart, far enough so she can create new hives from existing ones without risking that the bees will flying back to their original home.
She finds that people are always shocked to learn that each hive has about 60,000 bees, a number that seems more reasonable when you consider that 400 bees fit in a half cup.
“It sounds like so many bees because you don’t see most of them, all you see are the field bees,” which are nearing the end of their life cycle and are tasked with collecting pollen and nectar.
This summer Stanton’s 900,000 bees yielded about 100 pounds of honey. Not that much, she acknowledged, because only three of her hives were producing and she only started selling honey late in the season – her first venture into the commercial side of beekeeping.
She offered customers two “varietals”: a pale, early spring honey and an auburn autumn harvest. The color depends on the kinds of flowers the pollen came from. Late-summer honey is made of goldenrod and aster pollen, while the spring season yields clover, apple and raspberry.
At nearly $6 a pound, Harpswell Honey is more expensive than generic honey from the grocery store. But Stanton said it’s worth the price.
“When you buy … at the grocery store, that honey’s from all over the United States. Most of it’s from big, really big commercial bee keepers,” she said, who make a living driving their bees to various orchards to pollenate fruit trees or berries. “Because they’re so big and they have all these bees to manage, they could be treating them with antibiotics. You don’t really know what’s in that honey.”
Not so with small-scale producers.
“If you get local honey and you know the beekeeper and you know what the beekeeper’s doing,” Stanton said, “at least you know where your bees are foraging and (where) your honey is coming from.”
Which, for Harpswell residents, is right down the road.
Beekeeper Judith Stanton watches her bees as they exit the hive at Two Coves Farm in Harpswell
Field bees enter the hive after foraging for pollen and nectar.