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A sweet hobby: raising backyard bees

Posted: July 27, 2013 - 11:01pm

KETCHIKAN — Ever since he was stung on the face while on vacation in Germany when he was 13 years old, Jurgen Johannsen has been fascinated by honeybees.

“He reads about them all the time,” said his fiancee, Myrna Rooker. “He researches everything constantly.”

When the two decided to purchase their home on Roosevelt Drive, Rooker said Johannsen talked “constantly” about getting bees and chickens, though she didn’t pay much attention at the time. Now they live in the house, and true to his goal, Johannsen has bees and chickens.

“He actually gave me a book from his collection,” Johannsen said of an admired author. “I still have it.”

Thus, the German-written “Self-sufficiency through beekeeping” was Johannsen’s first book about beekeeping. His collection has grown from there, filling at least two shelves on the bookcase.

Johannsen’s first attempt at having a colony began in the spring 2011, with about 5,000 bees and one queen. The bees lasted almost three years before dying this spring.

Each colony of bees consists of one queen, thousands of worker bees and fewer drones. Drones are male bees and do not actively participate in the colony, only eating the food and taking up space, Johannsen said. All worker bees are female.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are six species of honeybee, each providing its own set of pros and cons. Johannsen said he chose to have the Carniolan honeybee because it would overwinter well and produce a good amount of honey.

Before the bees arrived, he built a hive of cedar and placed it in the yard. He said the bees took to the hive just fine and proceeded to build their honeycombs while helping pollinate the neighbors’ plum tree and exploring the neighbors’ gardens.

“I talked to a few (neighbors),” he said. “I wanted to make sure the ones that were really close didn’t have allergies and they were very receptive.”

After the first summer, Johannsen thought the bees had either left the hive or died. He moved the hive to a shelf in the garage, just to get it out of the way. Periodically he found around six dead bees outside the hive, he said, which made him think there were maybe 20 or 30 still alive inside the hive. He said he needed the space in the garage for something else and, when spring arrived, the bees were buzzing again.

“I opened it up and looked inside and there were 2,000 or 3,000 bees alive in there,” he said. “I was very surprised.”

The bees did not survive this year, even though he said they were flying during the warmer days in January and February.

“The cold wasn’t too bad, but they can’t handle moisture,” he said. “(There was) condensation on the inside of the hive.”

Bees need a certain amount of warmth to survive. Much like human response to cold, bees bunch together and shiver to create warmth. The real problem is the moisture, which Ketchikan has in abundance.

“There’s nothing you can do about the moisture,” Johannsen said. “First, our air is really moist. Second, they collect nectar,” which they take inside the hive to condense into honey, creating more moisture.

“You have to build the hive in such a way that the sides are insulated and the condensation will collect in certain places to maintain a healthy level of moisture,” he said. “I think I have it figured out now.”

A new hive awaits next spring, when Johannsen will get a new colony of bees, possibly Yugo bees, a cross of the Russian, Buckfast and Carniolan bees, he said.

The new home consists of double-wall sides with cedar single-wall ends to collect the moisture away from the middle of the hive. Johannsen said he is hopeful this hive will be sufficient for the bees to overwinter year after year.

“So far it’s mostly an experiment to see if they will overwinter and do well in this environment,” he said. “If I get to the point I’m collecting enough honey to sell, that is a goal. But primarily, my goal is to see if we can get them to overwinter here.”

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