As spring bursts around the state, Alaskans note the changing of the season in many ways. Sandhill cranes arrive. The first float plane lands on Beluga Lake. Crocuses pop up.
Earlier this month, for some local agricultural producers, the buzz — pun very much intended — was all about the tiniest critter Alaskans raise.
At Linda Gorman’s home on McLay Road off East End Road, on a sunny Saturday, Homer’s beekeepers came together to pick up deliveries of bees.
Some bees overwinter, but most beekeepers start fresh every year with a new batch. Gorman’s garage hummed with 72 4-pound boxes of bees. Called packs, each box held 15,000 bees, including one or two queen bees in each pack.
That’s 1,080,000 bees, all ready to set up colonies and do what bees do best — make honey.
Working with Steve Victors of Alaska Wildflower Honey in Big Lake, Gorman coordinates the
lower Kenai Peninsula shipment of honeybees. Victors went to northern California to pick up Alaska’s shipment of about 1,500 packs, drove them to Oregon, and then had them flown up to Anchorage via UPS. On April 18, about 180 packs were driven to Soldotna, where with new beekeepers Jim and Mary Arndt, Gorman picked up Homer’s 72 packs.
The number of bees delivered this year to Homer represents a big jump in local interest, up from 47 packs ordered in 2014 and 43 in 2013.
“Going from 47 to 72 is huge,” Gorman said.
A late-spring blizzard at their homestead off Basargin Road looked like it might keep Arndt from helping Gorman, so the day before delivery day he drove his truck through drifts and parked it on East End Road, and then snowmachined back.
“It’s like the Iditarod Serum Run,” said Arndt, a former competitive sprint dog racer. “The bees must get through.”
Throughout bee delivery day, local beekeepers picked up from one to three packs. Each pack held a queen, protected in her own little cage. Bees have to get used to the scent of a queen new to them, and if the queen gets released too early, they’ll kill her.
A wooden plug keeps the queen in her cage. To keep her from being released too soon, beekeepers have a little trick. They take out the wooden plug and replace it with a small marshmallow. The bees eat the treat, and by the time they’ve gnawed through it, they’ve gotten used to the queen and accept her into the hive.
For the Arndts, checking on the queen after setting up their hives, seeing her alive was “almost like childbirth,” Jim Arndt said.
“We were on cloud 9,” he said. “Mary was almost skipping back to the house.”
Gorman said there are 52 beekeepers in Homer that she has on her list. The Arndts’ 80-acre homestead at 1,650 foot elevation about a half mile off Basargin Road east of Homer represents one geographic and climate extreme of beekeeping. People keep hives throughout the lower peninsula: in Anchor Point, on the North Fork Road, on the Old Sterling Highway, in downtown Homer and out East End Road all the way to Razdolna, also known as Basargin.
Jim Arndt said he first got interested in bees when as a teenager he visited an uncle’s farm in Michigan, where Arndt grew up.
“One time a cow had knocked over the hives. It was complete carnage,” he said. “There were hornets and wasps and all kinds of bugs flying around to get the honey. It was like a war of the worlds. I stood there enthralled watching what was going on.”
Eventually Arndt decided to take the leap and raise bees. With fields of fireweed and dandelions, he said he hopes their homestead will be good country for bees.
“I imagine they’ll have a good source of nectar to draw from,” he said.
Neil Wagner used to do the annual bee delivery, but Gorman has been doing it since 2009. Neil and his wife Kyra keep bees at their little farmstead off East End Road closer to town. Kyra Wagner got into beekeeping with the Peace Corps, when she learned and taught beekeeping in Paraguay from 1996-2000.
Alaska doesn’t have honeybees, just carpenter bees or bumblebees that live solo in small holes. For pollination, Alaska flowers rely on insects we have a lot of: mosquitoes and flies. That means wild Alaska bears don’t know of honey unless they acquire a taste for it from hives, which is why the Wagners keep their hives in a bee house, or apiary, with a roof, walls and an open front closed off with rebar and wire screen. A black bear in their neighborhood discovered honey.
Wagner has several theories for why beekeeping has become so popular.
“One is the whole back-to-the-land movement. Lots more people are talking about growing their own gardens, growing their own food,” she said.
People also have concerns about food security, the instability of the economy and systems in general, Wagner said. Hive collapse, where colonies of bees suddenly fail, has become a growing concern, particularly in areas like California that rely on bees to pollinate crops.
“In the same way food security has been on the forefront, bee security has been in the news,” Wagner said.
“Just the idea that you can grow your own bees sits well with people, too.”
Gorman has been keeping bees since 2007. A lifelong asthmatic, she got into beekeeping for health reasons. Pollen is good for the immune system and helps with environmental allergies, she said.
“I started eating pollen in 2003 and it really changed my life,” Gorman said. “I can mow my lawn now.”
For new beekeepers, Gorman has become something of a local mentor. She starts people off with a free publication from the Cooperative Extension, “Beekeeping of Alaska” (see box, top). She does talks at agricultural forums. People call her from as far away as Juneau to ask questions. In the summer, she holds fireside chats on beekeeping at her home. She’s also happy to take phone calls.
“I seem to have a passion for it,” she said. “If somebody will talk bees to me, I’ll talk all day long.”
Wagner said the best way to learn about bees is to talk to local beekeepers. It’s an agricultural practice that like a lot of things can be simple to get into and challenging to master.
“Bees always follow the rules. They are easily predictable,” Wagner said. “They don’t deviate from the rules. You just need to know the rules — but there are millions of rules. They’re fascinating and baffling at the same time.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
• “Beekeeping in Alaska,” Cooperative Extension Service: www.uaf.edu/files/ces/publications-db/catalog/anr/ABM-00230.pdf
• Linda Gorman
Homer Girls Honey
• Beekeeping Supplies
The Victors family, Big Lake