By Jenny Neyman
This summer’s wet weather — one of the rainiest on record for Southcentral Alaska — has put a damper on many people’s favorite outdoor activities: hiking, biking, fishing, camping, gardening, etc. For most, the rain just means putting up with getting wet in order to engage in their chosen summer pursuits.
But for others, the consecutively rainy days have a much more dire effect on their activity of choice — no less than death, destruction, loss of investment and a lack of the sweet reward that can usually be reaped come fall.
“It’s just a wipeout year for bees. Anybody who’s keeping bees is going to be hurting, at least in our area,” said Brian Olson, of Alaska Berries farm off Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Bees don’t fly in the rain, explained Linda Albers, who keeps beehives with her husband, Steve Albers, on their farmstead near Kenai. Consistently rainy weather has kept bees high and dry in their hives.
“If they don’t fly, they don’t bring in any stores, so any stores that they have been able to bring in, they eat. And if they still can’t get out, they eat up their winter stores,” Albers said. “This was a year not to have them.”
The intermittent occurrences of dry skies — and the even more rare moments of sun — haven’t given bees enough time to gather adequate pollen and nectar to provide for their own sustenance, much less build up honey that can be harvested by beekeepers.
“They just use what energy and what stores they have to get to the next sunny day. This morning was sunny and fairly warm and they probably were out for a brief period, then if there’s two or three days of rain it’s kind of a moot point. What they stored is probably not enough to last them even a couple days,” Albers said Saturday.
Now is about the last chance for bees to get busy, as dandelions have already come and gone, and fireweed, clover and other favorite nectar-producing flowers are about bloomed out, as well. If bees don’t gather now, there won’t be anything left to bring back for honey-making and winter storage, even if the weather does warm up and dry out.
“The nectar window is now, with the white clover and the fireweed. That’s all blooming right now and they’re not flying. And if they’re not flying, they’re not out getting anything,” Olson said.
The rain, plain and simple, is primarily to blame for the poor bee conditions, but cool temperatures don’t help. Bees can withstand cold, but it doesn’t particularly motivate them to fly and gather, said Rosy Thompson, who keeps two hives at her home in the Kenai area.
“The water bombs coming down take them out pretty easy, the big drops and stuff. But if it’s warm and just a little rainy they will fly some. But it’s not gotten above 70 degrees more than a handful of days this summer, so they’re not out in force,” Thompson said.
If bees don’t gather pollen and nectar, beekeepers will not only find themselves without honey to harvest, but they’ll have to start feeding it to the hive to keep the bees from starving. Sugar water or artificial bee feed can be used to sustain a hive, although Albers said that isn’t ideal.
“We do not like to supplement with sugar and artificial feed, because I figure that sugar does the same to them as it does to our immune system,” she said.
The bees’ own honey, if there’s any left over from a previous year, makes the best bee food, she said.
“The optimum thing to use is if you have honey stores left from the year before off of your own property. That would be the best to feed,” Albers said. “I just feel they work for it, they should have it. Any honey you bring in from the outside, if you just purchased honey for them, you’d be bringing in any diseases those bees may be carrying. You’re asking for disaster, basically.”
Keeping honeybees in Alaska can be challenging even under the best conditions. Hives can succumb to parasites, too much moisture can cause mold, the all-important queen can die and leave an otherwise healthy hive without a means to reproduce, and bears, moose and other wildlife can topple a hive in one swat of a paw or stomp of a hoof.
“They’re not natural to Alaska anyway. We’re keeping them in an artificial habitat no matter what, no matter how naturally or organically we try to keep them,” Albers said. “Unless you provide these little artificial homes for them they would never survive here, like goldfish or anything else.”
Overwintering beehives is a particularly daunting task in Southcentral. The cold isn’t even the main issue; it’s managing humidity, light, making sure there’s enough food, and timing when they start becoming active — not too early or they’ll die from eating up their stores or flying into snow, and not too late or they won’t lay eggs in time for spring.
“It’s hard to winter them out,” Olson said. “But if they winter out that’s great, then I don’t have to buy them, and then they’re ready to go when you’re ready to go in spring instead of waiting for buying them at a specific date and time. The earlier you get them out there, the earlier the queen starts laying eggs, the faster you can build up a population. It’s kind of like a war. You want to have as many soldiers at your disposal as possible.”
Olson has hope for a new overwintering system he’s building and hopes to try out next year. He’ll keep the bees cool and dormant until the weather starts warming in February and March. Once they get active he’ll open trapdoors to let them out of the hive to do cleansing flights over his greenhouse, which will be clear of snow.
Once bees get active in the spring they need to relieve themselves and can’t do it in the hive. But if they fly out too early and touch snow, they die. That’s what happened in his last attempt at overwintering.
“One week was all I needed and they didn’t make it. They all died. They couldn’t hold it anymore and once they start going to the bathroom in the hive they die. The whole colony died within three days,” he said. “But if there’s snow and the bees touch the snow, they’re done. They’re not going to get up and fly again. That’s the trouble in spring. It gets warmed up, they come out and start flying around and there’s snow on the ground.”
With knowledge and ingenuity, beekeeping is possible in Alaska, even on a commercial scale. And the challenge of devising ways to be successful is part of the fun, Olson said.
“I don’t think it has to be that way. I think a person can eventually get a theory or design that will work,” he said.
Honey is the ultimate treat for all the effort and frustration that can come with beekeeping, but the activity itself can be rewarding, as well.
“Why do it? That’s a good question,” said Thompson, who has been keeping bees for about 25 years. “Of course I like the honey, but they’re fascinating critters. I guess it’s kind of addicting. I got into doing it and just haven’t been able to quit.”
Years like this one certainly give reason to consider hanging up the hives, however. The Alberses used to keep at least 25 hives, but a wet, cold summer in 2008 wiped them out. Now they’re focusing more time on building their farmstead than baby-sitting bees.
“This year we only have four hives, just because of the losses we had the year before last. It was just devastating. The weather was like this and we lost all 25 hives. So we’ve been a little more cautious starting up again,” Albers said.
If there is a bright side for beekeepers to this year’s wet summer, it’s that it isn’t quite as bad as the summer two years ago. Thompson was able to rob at least a few frames of honey out of one of her hives Saturday.
“2008 so far is still the worst year ever,” Thompson said. “There was a lot of rain like there is this year, but it was colder. It didn’t get up to 50 (degrees) a lot that year. This year we haven’t gotten around 60 a lot. The bees won’t fly if it’s below 45 or 50, they fly more if it’s 50 to 60 or above. This year I’d say is fairly poor, but 2008 — that went down in history as the worst year ever.”