by Joe Orsi
This year I tried to improve the pollination success of my fruit trees by keeping honey bees near our home in Auke Bay. I was fortunate to acquire some beekeeping supplies from a person who raised bees in Juneau about ten years ago. I also ordered beekeeping supplies from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, Inc. and then began to look for a bee source. It was just my luck to discover that in 1995, the U.S. Postal Service had decided to not handle live shipments of bees, and UPS was also not interested in shipping bees. As a result of this shipping dilemma, several bee sources discontinued selling bees to Alaska. Thanks to the help of Elden Jeffers, of the Southcentral Beekeepers Association, I located a bee source who would ship bees to Alaska (Taber’s Honey Bee Genetics). Because Alaska Airlines required a $30 minimum for “counter to counter” live shipments, I went in with two other beekeepers and ordered six units at $37 each. A unit consisted of 3 lbs of Italian bees and one queen. I kept one unit, sold another to a fellow beekeeper, and the four remaining units were shipped to Haines. The shipping cost from Sacramento to Juneau split between the six units was $13 each.
When the bees arrived in late April, it was a hot spring day and Alaska Air Cargo was mighty glad to see me pick up my noisy merchandise. I was quite nervous loading 18 lbs of buzzing insects into my Subaru with only thin screens separating them from me. I drove away cautiously because I did not want to get into an accident. I arrived home and carefully unloaded my cargo to the shade; there I got my first (and only) sting through the screen on my thumb. Off to good start, I thought, and I haven’t even released my bees into the hive yet.
That evening I donned my new beekeeping suit, gave my three pounds of caged bees a slathering of sugar syrup, and when they were fat and happy I shook them into my hive. This was, as one of my beekeeping books aptly stated: “one of the most nervous-making step in you beekeeping career”. About half of the bees were still clustered around the small queen cage inside the shipping container. I reached in and extracted the queen cage from within the bee cluster and suspended it between two frames in the middle of the hive. The purpose of the queen cage is to slowly acclimate the queen and her phermones to the workers, so they won’t reject her. This acclimation takes several days which is about the time it takes for workers to chew out a tunnel in a candy plug within a tube in the queen cage.
Things appeared to be going well with my bees for the first few weeks, that is, until the bear showed up in early June. I had inspected my hive one morning and saw that my sugar syrup jar was missing, there were large tooth marks on my hive, and some bear scat was present within spilling distance of the hive. 1 needed to do something. I didn’t feel justified in killing the bear because it had a sweet tooth, so I spoke to some game biologists about bear deterrents. The next day I constructed an electric fence which I purchased from Swampy Acres, a local feed store. A couple days after my project was complete I saw the fence in action. I had come home for lunch and was walking toward my bee hive when I noticed the “bear” as he approached the fence. He hadn’t noticed me, so I slowly walked over toward our chicken coop and activated the fence. Mr. bear touched the fence, snapped back, and bolted into the woods. He never bothered the bee hive again.
Over the course of the spring and summer, my bees were typically active when it was calm out and temperatures were above 50 degrees. I did see the bees visit my apple and cherry blossoms, but poor weather in early June reduced their activity. When conditions permitted, the bees were active in the pussy willow, salmonberries, clover, fireweed, raspberries, hairy vetch, scarlet runner beans, and Sitka roses. For some reason they left the blueberries to the bumblebees. When the fireweed was in full bloom, I located my bees-by the hundreds—up to a half mile away!
By mid summer I added another full frame hive body on top of the first one because the hive appeared to be getting crowded. This was done to prevent the bees from swarming. In retrospect, I should have added a queen excluder panel between the hive bodies to prevent the queen from moving “upstairs” to raise brood as opposed to just the workers moving up through the excluder and building comb and capping off honey. Being a novice beekeeper, however, I underestimated how long it actually took the bees to draw out the comb on both sides of each sheet of beeswax foundation. They never fully filled both the hive bodies. So by the end of July, I had a lot of bees but not much honey. In August, we all had a “taste” of honey which only amounted to a few ounces.
Rather than killing all my hard working bees off in the Fall, and harvesting the “gallons” of honey I had envisioned collecting, I decided to feed them from late August until late September with enough sugar syrup to hopefully sustain them for the winter. I subsequently fed them about four gallons of sugar syrup and they capped off about 70-80% of the available comb with honey. In October, I insulated the hive with 2 inch foam, board and leaned a couple wooden pallets against the hive and covered them with a tarp so heavy snow wouldn’t smother the hive. As of Thanksgiving, most of my honey bees appeared to be still alive. Just five short months until spring!
In summary, beekeeping turned out to be more fascinating than I had anticipated. I became a lot more attached to the little creatures than I thought I would, and the educational aspect of the experience was well worth the endeavor. As far as pollinating my fruit trees, yes honey bees do help, but the weather still needs to be cooperative in order for the bees lo fly during blossom time. One of the timeless pleasures of beekeeping for me was firing up the smoker and “working” the bees with my kids and their friends,
Honey Bee Source:
Taber’s Honey Bee Genetics
P.O. Box 1672
Vacaville, CA 95696
Beekeeping Supply Source:
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, Inc.
610 Bethany Church Rd.
Moravian Falls, NC 28654
Electric Fence Source:
10400 Glacier Highway
Juneau, Alaska 99801