At this time of year most Alaskans look outside our windows and wonder whether summer will ever return. We wonder when to pack our heavy winter clothing away. We wonder when we can safely remove our studded snow tires. And some of us wonder what type of honey bees, and how many we will order, for our backyard apiaries.
Although many of us still drive around with studded tires on our vehicles, we know that now is the time to place our honey bee orders. I’m into bees so I am always excited and optimistic at this time of year even when it is snowing … like it is today.
In order to be a successful Alaska beekeeper, you must have a general interest in bees and what they do, a good location to install your bee hives, and surplus cash to get started. If you have all three, you are setting yourself up for a successful beekeeping season. Beekeeping in southcentral Alaska begins in mid-April when the honey bees arrive at the Anchorage airport.
The first step in the process is to find out whether your city, town, or condo association allows honey bee colonies in your backyard. The muni, for example, allows no more than four hives situated no closer than 25 feet from property lines in an average-sized backyard. The next important step is to buy or borrow a good book about honey bees and read it from cover to cover. I recommend The Beekeeper’s Handbook, by Diana Sammatora. It’s important for you to have a basic understanding about these insects before you find yourself driving home with thousands of buzzing, uncomfortable bees in the back seat of your mini-van or Subaru.
When you know that honey bee colonies are allowed in your backyard and you have a fair understanding of what bees do and how they organize themselves in a colony, then you are ready for a series of very important decisions.
Decision 1: Decide on the type of hive you will use to house your backyard bee colony. It’s good to select a hive style best-suited to your physical requirements. When the interior frames of a hive are filled with honey, brood, and bees, each Langstroth boxes will be heavy. In Alaska most beekeepers have Langstroth hives, which look like stacked up boxes with a distinct bottom board and lid on top. The top-bar hive, which looks like wide-open vertical filing cabinet drawer, is easier to use during hive inspections because the beekeeper must only lift one frame at a time. Bees can feel very comfortable in virtually any hive you prepare for them as long as there are abundant flowers for foraging and a water source nearby. You can either purchase a hive from a local beekeeping supply store or make one yourself using directions readily available online.
Decision 2: At the same time you decide on your preferred bee hive, you should order your honey bees. The time for these activities is now! After the almond pollination work is complete in central California, Alaska bee sellers bring 4-pound packages of these bees to Alaska. The most common honey bees found in area apiaries are Carniolans and Italians. Russians are a winter-hardy breed more resistant to parasitic varroa destructor mites which can be a big problem in Alaska. They are also good choice for overwintering.
Decision 3: Between now and when your honey bees arrive in mid-April, you should take a basic beekeeping class. You can do this with an in-person instructor in a classroom setting or by watching an online training program. No matter how entertaining they may be, you should not select a training video that portrays beekeeping in Georgia, Tennessee, or the Philippines! Beekeeping in Alaska is considerably different from Lower 48 practices. Unlike our friends to the south, we have a very short season followed by a long, cold winter. Successful beekeeping in Alaska beekeeping does not resemble what works in Florida!
Decision 4: Join a bee group. There are two to choose from in southcentral Alaska. It’s guaranteed that you will learn something new at every meeting so bring along a notebook and take notes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Nobody was born thoroughly knowledgeable about bees and beekeeping in Alaska.
If you have thought about beekeeping in the past, now may be the time to put those thoughts into action. If you have recently retired, this could be the perfect activity to take up all of your newly-available free time. If you are home schooling your children, beekeeping lends itself easily to an interesting science curriculum or a cooking class using honey, rather than sugar, as a sweetener.
It’s still snowing in Anchorage and the studded tires remain on my vehicle. I never go out without a proper winter coat. For me, however, spring starts when my honey bees arrive. Only 21 more days!
Barbara Bachmeier is an avid and enthusiastic Alaska beekeeper with a backyard apiary located in East Anchorage. This article is the first in a series dealing with honey bees, beekeeping practices, and honey bee products. If you have questions or would like referrals, you may reach her at AlaskaBeekeeping@gmail.com .