Honeybees arrive for spring work in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Anchorage may look as springlike as the inside of a spittoon right now, but still, spring it is. We know this because a vital part of Southcentral Alaska's agricultural labor force has started reporting for duty.

Just the other day, some 2,250,000 of these migrant workers, fresh off the California almond crop, arrived around 5 in the morning all jet-lagged after a long flight with precious little leg room in compartments no bigger than a half-rack of beer.

Which is to say, the honeybees have landed.

It would be too predictable to say this has created quite a buzz around town, so we won't. Let's just say their arrival via cargo jets this time of year is like the crocus bloom of the beekeeping world.

"You get gardeners that are so excited to get out there and dig in the soil; it's the same kind of thing with beekeepers," said Steve Victors of Alaska Wildflower Honey. "It's the start of a new season, and that's how some people mark the beginning of spring."

This year, more than ever, the emphasis is on "new beginning." That's because last summer- best just forgotten - was all about rain, chilly temperatures and skies the color of Mount Redoubt breath.

Like a lot of us, the bees went on strike.

It was often too cold for them to leave their hives, and when they did, they found nectar and pollen in short supply. Last summer's honey crop was such a bust, the Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association canceled its booth at the Alaska State Fair.

"We are starting fresh here," says Victors. "It's like any farmer. They say, 'Oh well, we'll just plant again because this year's going to be better.'"

Bees abound

A few beekeepers in Alaska have developed ways of over-wintering bees, which is not easy.

Victors, who keeps about 100 hives on his 160-acre Big Lake homestead, over-winters his in a 40-foot-long, insulated shipping container set up with a fresh-air circulation system and heaters to keep the temperature at precisely 40 degrees. He typically locks his bees inside in early October and doesn't let them out until it starts to warm in the spring.

Most beekeepers, however, get fresh starter colonies shipped up in mid-April. As a supplier, Victors is bringing up 750 of these "packages," which are little wooden boxes with screened sides containing 15,000 bees, or four pounds worth, each. Plus a queen.

Shipping bees is an art form, because a lot of things can and have gone wrong.

There's the stowaway problem, where wayward bees get attracted to the queen bees' pheromones and cling to the outside of the boxes and get loaded onto cargo planes.

Bees in the cockpit: Bad.

And honeybees are sensitive creatures, so temperature and circulation have to be just right. Several years ago, a major airline tarped a shipment sitting on the tarmac, the bees overheated and died. And it's not the first time bees have baked.

For Victors, these kinds of mishaps ended when he started shipping his bees through John Higgins, a manager for CEVA Freight. They've been working together long enough now that they've got it down to a science. In the process, Higgins has become a convert and is now ordering bees from Victors himself.

By the time the last of Victors' five loads arrives this week, he will have supplied beekeepers from the Mat-Su to the Kenai Peninsula with 11,250,000 honeybees. And if things go the way they're supposed to this season, those 11 million bees, being fed by their keepers for now, will multiply to 45 million by the time the nectar flows in June.

On being a bee

Even though it's about the honey, honeybees and the societies they build are fascinating to work with, Victors says. He imports two kinds - Italians and Carniolans.

The Carniolan are a bit more gentle, he says, but are less tolerant to overcrowding and have more of a tendency to swarm in search of new digs.

The Italians are more aggressive about finding food, and that makes them more likely to raid neighboring hives.

Guarding the hive entrance from robbers is just one of many jobs in the matriarchal bee society, which consists of all-female worker bees and relatively few males called drones.

During active summer months, the life span of a worker bee is all of six weeks.

"They literally work themselves to death," said Victors.

Even so, worker bee isn't the least desirable position in the hive, as Anchorage beekeeper, Josetta Cranston, tells it. That distinction goes to the drone.

The drones' whole mission in life is to hook up with a virgin queen in order to donate their services.

That doesn't sound so bad. But wait.

When the virgin queen embarks on her mating flights, she travels miles from her own hive to pick up strange guys. Drones zero in on this and follow. She then flies 200 feet up into the air and mates on the wing. One drone won't do, so she picks several.

And then?

"As they do their thing, they lose their apparatus and fall to their deaths," Cranston told those gathered for her releasing of the bees.

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