Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Raising Honey Bees in Alaska, Harvesting Honey

Every year, we add a few new projects, as we endeavor to increase our self-reliance. This year, in the arena of animal husbandry, we added ducks and honey bees. Since I have written in a prior article about the former, this article will focus on the latter.

Honey bees are absolutely the lowest maintenance creature we have raised, but obviously some special equipment and instruction are necessary first.

To get started, my husband enrolled, along with about 60 other people, in an informative, two part class in February, held in Eagle River, AK, and taught by Steve Victors (Alaska Wildflower Honey), a 20 year, local beekeeper and vendor of beekeeping supplies.

In addition to useful, Alaska-relevant considerations, Steve summarized the history of beekeeping (the Mayans and Egyptians both domesticated them), medical uses for wound management and mummification, and the fascinating culture of the hive, with its queen, workers, and drones. I wish I had attended, too!

After the class, Bryan was enthused and decided to go forward, so he bought a bee suit and
Astronaut or beekeeper? 
disassembled hive boxes. The suit looks like something an astronaut would wear, made of thick white cotton and nylon, with sturdy elastic around the ankles and wrists, and a double layered, framed net head dress. The boxes are made of white pine. Each hollow hive box is about 20” long x 16” wide. The depth of the boxes varies from 6 - 10”, depending on whether they are intended for housing bees (deeper) or storing honey (shallower). In the South, most bee hives I have seen are white, which is to keep them cool. But Alaskan beekeepers paint theirs dark colors, to keep them warm. Ours are forest green, to match our various outbuildings.
The green honey boxes are shallower
than the unpainted brood box below

In the second half of May, once it warmed up here and plants and trees are starting to green up, Bryan flew out a brood box with a queen and starter colony of bees (a few hundred). Together, the start up equipment and insects cost about $650.

When they safely arrived (imagine if the bees had gotten out into our little cockpit!), Bryan placed the brood box onto a wooden pallet we had situated in the back corner of our property, with the bees' entrance facing sunny south. On top, we placed four other boxes, forming a short tower. Since honey bees are not native to Alaska, bears don't know about the tempting substance – and stinging creatures - within. But, they are inquisitive animals, so we strapped the hive down to the pallet with tie downs and surrounded it with bear mats, which are plywood panels with nails facing up.

Inside each of the boxes dangle ten frames, like empty window frames (19” x 5-9” x 1”). Over the summer, the bees construct hexagonal cells of wax to fill each frame. The brood box on the bottom layer houses the 1500 eggs per day laid by the queen, each carefully nestled into its own cell. Since the workers and drones live only about six weeks, the prodigious number of eggs is needed to grow the population. For us, one brood box sufficed for 2.5 months, after which we need to add a second level. The more bees there are, the faster they can build the wax cells of comb (which is the same size for eggs in the lower boxes and honey in the upper ones), the more pollen they can retrieve and, important in Alaska, the warmer they can keep the interior of the hive. The bees eat the honey they produce to provide the energy they need for their busy, busy lives. Since it is our desire to harvest the honey for ourselves, we provide them with sugar water before the plants start to flower, but not during the summer, when we don't want the sugar water to adulterate our honey.

Once a week, Bryan donned his beekeeping suit, first checking carefully for any unwelcome tears or rips in the fabric. He lighted a portable smoker, filled with dried moose nuggets, believe it or not (mostly willow bits), to waft around the hive, lulling the bees to rest, before checking the frames hanging in each hive box layer to see how the colony was growing and how much the comb had expanded. He prefers to do this on sunny days, when half the hive is away, collecting pollen.

A single hive can grow to 60,000 inhabitants in a season, and he observed that for the first two months of June and July, our hive was a busy and bustling community. But then the population plateaued. In August, he inferred that the queen had died or swarmed (left to start a new hive somewhere in the woods). In their fascinating way, the workers can do something to turn a normal egg into a future queen at perilous times like this. Sure enough, when we extracted our honey on August 14th, our mentor, Steve, identified two distinctively large honeycomb cells in the brood box which were full of royal jelly, for a future queen and a spare.

Honeybees tend to travel up to1.5 miles. Within that vicinity, we could heard their hum (as well as other local pollinators). Favorite plants appeared to be flowering fireweed and raspberries and the blousy pink of cosmos. In my vegetable gardens, they LOVED delicate white radish flowers and the insubstantial flowers of Swiss Chard. They had no interest in asters (which tend to be pollinated by flies).

The time to harvest honey is when the flowers fade. After that, the bees start feeding on the honey themselves. Logically, Alaska has a shorter season than other parts of the country and target dates around here tend to be in August. This is the only high maintenance (and nervous!) day of beekeeping, per year.

On the fateful day, Bryan donned his suit, carted a plastic cooler over to the hive, and smoked the bees. Then he lifted out each frame filled with honeycomb, and, with a thin, stiff brush like the one we use on our windshield in winter, proceeded to gently brush off the bees working there. Thus cleared, each frame was deposited in the cooler, for transport to the extraction unit. Although on prior visits the insects had been rather indifferent to his peeks, they, like any creatures, were incensed when he removed their food source. The next half hour he described as something out of a horror movie. The bees coated the outer mesh of his face mask, several bodies deep, to the point where he could barely see, and, of course brushing them away irritated them even more. Others crawled all over his suit, flying in and out of the gaps created by his gloves and pockets, scouting out every seam in an aggrieved effort to sting him.

About an hour later, he walked slowly toward the cabin, trailed by a cloud of bees that he continued to brush away. I then met him on the porch and carefully inspected him in 360 degrees for any bees that remained, perhaps with stingers caught in the the threads of his suit. A knot of about 18 lingered between his shoulder blades, where he had been unable to reach, a few hid in the crevasse behind each knee, and one or two dropped to the wooden decking when he clomped up the steps.

Once he safely disrobed, he whisked the clothes to the shower house, because he had learned that angry bees release a pheromone to attract other soldierly bees to join the fight.

We could wait longer to harvest the honey, but since August/September is a time of daily
Shaving the wax cap off the honey comb
rain, we flew out between the raindrops, ferrying the honey heavy frames to Steve's extraction unit.

In a small room that smelled deliciously of honey, we squeezed in among the plastic buckets, metal sinks, bins, and spinners. We removed the seven frames and proceed to pick off the thin wax cap over the honeycomb with a capping fork, that that looks like a miniature version of carding comb for wool. With our fingers, we tasted some of the honey that clung to the wax. What a treat! What a wonderful, natural miracle that the
Frames in the extractor (centrifuge)
dusty pollen collected on bees' legs could transform into something so beautiful, useful, and delicious! The wax we saved in a mason jar. On a future date, the clinging honey will have drained down and we will make a few beeswax candles. Once the comb was uncapped, we placed the frames, vertically, into an electric centrifuge which spun the honey to the sides and drained the golden liquid into a food grade bucket beneath.

The amount we collected was less than we expected, but isn't that true of any first year
Beeswax left, honey right, bouquet of
tomato and bean flowers, center
endeavor? We had heard numbers like 5-6 gallons per hive (in Alaska's short summer), but yielded only about 2. It is our understanding that the bees exert so much effort building the comb (and the colony) during that first year, that they have less time to produce honey. We hope that by saving the comb for next year, we can increase the yield.

Once back at home, we strained the liquid through a kitchen sieve and poured it into small jars for gifts and large jars for us. The next morning, I made pancakes which we topped with our first harvest of full flavored honey.

Our experience was a very positive one. The bees were very low maintenance (except for Bryan's scary first and last days) and I like the “Plan A/Plan B” back up food source of sugar water during inclement weather. We can encircle the hive with polystyrene insulation during cold summers or “shoulder months,” but we lack the resources to keep them above 40 degrees most of the l-o-n-g winters here, so we expect that the colony will die and we will buy new queens and starter colonies each May – at additional cost, for additional hives.
When we compared the flavors of our batch to some we got from Steve we noted a distinct difference, reflecting the various pollens on our respective properties. As a result, we look forward to saving a few bottles from each harvest, to discern how they vary.


How am I doing?  I always enjoy feedback so please let me know your thoughts about what you read on my blog or about what topics you believe I should tackle in the future.  Thanks!  Laura


  1. Your bees can live through Alaska's winter as long as they have easy access to honey stores above the nest. Temperatures need not be 40 or above, they can actually survive -55 F., again as long as they have easy access to honey above the nest. I teach real beekeeping in Alaska and that includes wintering bees outdoors too, and supply package bees with suitable Alaska wintering genetics, my web site has details about package bees and is an educational web site for honey bees in Alaska, www.alaskahoneybee.com
    Come visit my web site and start keeping bees in Alaska easy.