Alaska beekeepers work to preserve hives during winter

Nationwide shortage drives up the cost of importing fresh bees

Posted: Monday, November 27, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Honeybees aren't built to survive winter's subzero temperatures, but with a shortage of bees nationwide, more beekeepers are trying to nurture the fuzzy insects through Alaska's most notorious season.

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With parasitic mites preying on the U.S. bee population, the price of importing fresh bees to Alaska from farms to the south has risen steadily in the past several years.

Most beekeepers in Alaska kill their colonies with chemicals or soapy water after the brief summer honey harvest because keeping them alive through the winter is so difficult. Come spring, they send away for fresh bees from northern California, where many large-scale commercial beekeepers are based.

"It's usually more economical for people to get new bees, but the cost of bees and queens are going up every year," said Dick Allen, a retired helicopter engineer who kept tens of thousands of bees in 11 hives this summer in his suburban backyard.

Allen is typical of the hundreds of hobbyists who make up the bulk of beekeepers in Alaska. Honey, pollen and slabs of beeswax placed in neat rows on his kitchen counter await the odd customer lucky enough to spot the "Honey for Sale" sign planted in the snow along his residential street.

Allen never expects to make a profit.

"I'm not real aggressive about having a lot of hives," Allen said. "For most people here it's a hobby, a cottage industry."

In comparison, commercial beekeepers in the U.S. typically tend to 2,000 to 4,000 hives, with some managing up to 20,000 hives, said Marla Spivak, an entomology professor at the University of Minnesota.

But the parasitic mites are a problem for beekeepers large and small, from Alaska to Florida.

Various studies have shown the wild and domestic honeybee populations have declined dramatically in the past few decades, largely because the two species of bloodsucking mites have proven impossible to eradicate.

Varroa mites clamp, vampire-like, onto the bodies of adult and larval bees, while microscopic and fast-spreading tracheal mites hatch, feed and die in the bees' breathing passages.

In 2005 honeybees had to be imported from outside North America for the first time since 1922, according to a report released in October by the National Research Council.

"It's a bad situation and it's not getting better," said John Foster, a second-generation bee farmer who runs 12,000 hives in Esparto, Calif., 30 miles west of Sacramento. "The mites are a constant battle. It's taking so much more money to run these bees that it used to."

Steve Victors of Big Lake imports millions of bees from Foster each spring for hundreds of beekeepers in south-central Alaska. California agricultural officials inspect Foster's colonies for mites before they leave the state, but the pests always manage to hitch a ride.

"We're bringing up 9 million bees, so there's always going to be a few mites," Victors said.

When Allen started beekeeping 10 years ago, a 4-pound package, with 3,500 bees per pound, cost $55.

This year, a bulk order of several hundred packets that includes shipping and insurance will cost $92.50, said Victors.

The higher prices have beekeepers experimenting with various containers and insulating materials to protect bees through the cold months.

Victors said he is trying to keep 80 of his 100 colonies alive through the winter for the first time, despite the fact that the bees spend all their time clustered together for warmth among the waxy combs and produce no honey.

He moved his hives into a refrigerated container used originally to transport fruits and vegetables. Fans and thermostats hold the temperature at a precise 40 degrees. When hives get too warm the bees will try to leave the hive to pass waste. If it's too cold they refuse to break from their cluster, not even to retrieve honey or sugar syrup stored in hexagonal niches just inches away. They don't so much freeze as starve to death.

Victors started keeping bees about eight years ago after one of the huge wildfires characteristic of an Alaska summer blackened hundreds of thousands of acres in his region, about 60 miles north of Anchorage.

He brought in bees to his homestead to help pollinate new plants and replace the insect population, which he said "was pretty well wiped out."

"We started with a couple hives and the honey was so good, we expanded to a hundred," said Victors.

Many of the techniques used to over-winter bees come from Canada, according to Spivak. In the mid-1980s, a ban on importing American bees forced Canadian beekeepers to invent ways to keep the colonies alive through the cold months.

Victors, for instance, is modeling his winter set-up on that of a beekeeper in Ontario who he said has reported winter survival rates of 98 percent.

Alaska beekeepers face a paradoxical dilemma in the choice to prolong the life of a hive after the fireweed, berries and dandelions have withered: Bees that are cooped up for the winter succumb more easily to the mites and tend to be weaker than packaged bees that have been busy gathering nectar in warmer climes.

Some say hive preservation is an art that goes beyond economics. They feel it's a duty and a welcome challenge to help the bees survive.

"It's so easy to get bee packets," said Allen. "To my thinking, it's called 'beekeeping.' You keep the bees."

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