Low temperatures, rain limit Alaska honey production

Bee people from Fairbanks to Anchorage say insects were often too cold to leave their hives

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008

ANCHORAGE - In Josetta Cranston's Anchorage backyard, thousands of honeybees labored all summer building zillions of waxy hexagons inside their wooden hives. They nurtured young. They hunted nectar. They loaded their legs with pollen grains.

But as the days get shorter, something's missing when Cranston peers at the frames that house her colonies: honey.

"It's the saddest year ever," she said.

An uncharacteristically wet, cold July in Anchorage and across the Interior has devastated bee season, shrinking the state's bountiful and sought-after honey flow to a sticky trickle. The Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association, which represents over 100 beekeepers in Anchorage and the Mat-Su, voted last month to cancel its honey booth at the Alaska State Fair.

No one had honey, they said.

Bee people from Fairbanks to South Anchorage say the little hummers were often too cold to leave their hives, and when they did, they found less nectar. Because of the ruinous weather - flooding in the Interior and twice the normal rain for July in Southcentral - flowers bloomed later, limiting the days the bees could harvest. The temperature and moisture also changed the nectar consistency.

"This has been a nightmare of a season," said Don Winston, who runs Bee Alaskan Apiaries in Delta, one of the state's largest honey farms. "I've been keeping bees for 20 years, and this is the first time I don't have any honey crop."

And, it's not just bees. Pests that do damage have been slowed down as well, said Roger Burnside, the state entomologist. Mosquitoes, bark beetles, saw flies and birch leaf miners are flying less, he said. Less activity means smaller populations.

"It has to be warm enough for them to want to take flight," Burnside explained.

Studies show insects have preferred temperatures to get going. For example, spruce bark beetles need it to be 59 to 60 for a few days before they will fly, he said. Bees also need sunlight, because it helps them navigate and locate the hive.

Depending on the type of insect, there could be an impact on next summer's populations as well.

Honeybees are sensitive under the best circumstances. They aren't native to Alaska, and most beekeepers order them from Outside at the beginning of each new season. Bees can't survive on their own over a harsh Alaska winter, in part because going so long without being able to leave the hive to excrete waste makes them sick. Some beekeepers go through the complicated process of wintering them. Others kill them after honey harvest, which is generally in August.

This year's problem is likely a fluke, just a product of bad weather and not related to Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon that kills bees and empties hives. That's struck hives Outside in about half the states and was reported in a few Alaska hives for the first time this year.

Bees live on nectar. When they can't leave the hive to get it, they rely on the honey they've made and stored. Usually they make more honey than they need, but not this year.

"For the first time ever, I had bees starving to death on me at the end of July," Winston said.

It's normal for bees to swarm on occasion, leaving the hive with a queen in search of a new home. That behavior usually quits by early July, said Stephen Petersen, a beekeeper and beekeeping instructor in Fairbanks.

This year beekeepers have been reporting more swarming later in the season, he said. Last month in Eagle River, a large swarm moving through a neighborhood prompted calls to police.

"Maybe it's the fact they were confined in the hive with bad weather, maybe they thought there were greener pastures over the hill," Petersen said.

Alaska honey, golden and perfumed with the nectar of wildflowers like fireweed and wild roses, has growing cachet nationally because of its flavor and purity, factors that influence price.

Because Alaska has less large-scale agriculture than other states, bees are exposed to fewer pesticides than almost anywhere else. The honey's not organic, but it's close.

The price of keeping bees, especially shipping them to Alaska, has been rising in general, doubling the price of honey in some places over the last five years. It retails for between $9 and $16 a pound and this year's scarcity will likely make it more precious, sending ripples through the market over the next year.

"I'm scrounging for honey," said Dulce Ben-East of Kahiltna Birchworks, who's been selling birch syrup and honey products at the fair for 18 years. "I might have to get Canadian honey this year."

Some people like Winston, who make part of their living from honey, are calling this year a total loss.

"We can't take too many of these kind of years," he said. "Obviously."

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