Meet a Beekeeper

Tom Cosman- "I Am going To Do That!"

Whenever beekeepers gather, a bit of collective introspection goes on as people look around at the grey hair and wonder about the future of their craft. Count back. Many of those grey hairs had to have started some time, and that time was the 1970's.

Tom Cosman was part of that 1970's intake and his story is not untypical. A suburban Montreal kid, he attended Mount Allison, met his partner Mary Ann Whidden, went to BC- degree unfinished- and during a brief stint as a house husband discovered his calling. A Vancouver neighbour had backyard hives. Tom was fascinated, had his "Eureka" moment and decided at age 21 that "I'm going to do that!" He started reading the "Joys of Beekeeping" by Richard Taylor ... and he still reads voraciously about beekeeping today.

In 1979 Tom and his partner returned to Quebec and worked for a summer for his brother, another suburban kid who had gone to the country, in his case to farm beef and maple products east of Sherbrooke. Tom kept hives there that summer but lost his honey to the bears.

He and Mary Anne moved that fall to Wolfville with the vision intact and a strategy in place. Tom drove an oil delivery truck in the winter and worked at beekeeping in the summer. Their hive numbers expanded rapidly, from 7 in the first Nova Scotia summer, to 40 the next. They bought out small operations. Tom worked several summers as bee inspector, gleaning everything he could from the beekeepers he visited. Their goal was to run 500 hives by age 35, a goal they met and have since surpassed as they now run around 1,000 hives.

Honey production was the initial intent, and with that in mind they bought a property on route 1 in Greenwich where they would be able to do direct marketing from their home. It was not until 1986, when he was at the 200 hive level, that Tom started renting hives to blueberries, and though he rents most of his hives for blueberry pollination now, he is very conscious that the practice comes with a price. Tom always keeps back 100 hives from pollination and he believes that 9 years out of 10 these hives each garner a 50 to 60 pound premium of honey – equivalent to the rental fee that each rented hive earns. Tom moves about 500 hives himself and the others are moved by the blueberry growers from Cumberland County who come to the Valley with their trucks and trailers where Tom loads them with his hives.

Tom over winters his hives in two supers, with foam or "pillow" insulation on top, an upper entrance and pallet wrap for wind protection. He did do some indoor wintering for about ten years but does it no longer, believing the stronger outdoor wintered hives more than compensate for the slightly higher survival rate of indoor bees. His hives are palletized with four on a pallet. He takes honey off early in September, feeds fumadil in syrup and treats as necessary for mites. After experiencing one bad year recently, and a loss that necessitated the purchase of package bees to replenish the operation, Tom now monitors up to 25% of his hives for varroa and treats at the 2% infestation level (1% below the generally recommended threshold level) but by monitoring so extensively has discovered some yards that do not need treating. Tom tries to avoid feeding in the spring, and, as much as possible, boosts the light hives with comb from the honey bound ones. He has recently started feeding pollen patties in the spring and quickly shifted from home-made ones to purchased ones.

With managing most of his hives for pollination, Tom thinks that swarming is not a major problem. He splits hives in May, making sure they meet the pollination standard, and sends them to berries in two brood chambers and a honey super so they have ample room. The "boomers" he controls by taking out nucs, and if they are into swarm mode, he splits them several times, letting them queen themselves with the swarm cells.

One interesting and specialized part of Tom's operation is the production of comb honey. He takes a strong hive, breaks it down, filling one super with brood combs and bees and the queen so it is super strong, and puts a queen excluder above it, and puts two shallow supers on top. The frames in the shallow have only a narrow strip of wax attached to the top bar. The bees build comb and fill it with honey. Tom checks the brood nest and cuts out swarm cells weekly. He takes away full shallows and adds new ones as summer progresses. He manages about twenty hives in this intensive way, selling most of the comb honey from the door.

Over the years a bit of a division of labour has developed, with Tom doing the beeyard work and Mary Anne doing much of the honey house work. The arrangement had to do with the realities of child-rearing, but it might have had something to do with a family touchstone moment from the early days: Tom, Mary Anne and baby were moving bees one night when they backed the truck into a ditch in a remote field, and that's where the threesome spent the night. One can imagine the conversation.

Tom and Mary Anne pack and market all their own honey and more besides, close to 200,000 pounds a year. Mary Anne is the driving force behind the direct sales. They have sold at the Halifax Market for 20 years, only missing one market day. Tom says they find it a very satisfying way to make a livelihood. They enjoy producing food, the beneficial nature of beekeeping and the interaction with their customers.

Tom was for many years the treasurer of the NSBA, despite the fact that he says he doesn't like meetings and conferences. His beekeeping apprenticeship years well in the past, Tom's advice to the newbies is "Read, read, read." One of his favourite sites is Amongst the several books he mentioned was R.O.B. Manley's "Honey Farming." Tom believes that beekeeping at the level and way he practices it is farming and is different than hobby beekeeping. He believes that "bee farmers" should be the voice of the commodity in relations with government