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Alaska Beekeeping

Alaska is the largest state in the continental United States and is the state that is the farthest from the Lower 48. We are larger that California, Texas and Montana combined. The state has five different regions—each with distinct environments and climates. The Interior has a subarctic climate. South East has been identified as rainforest; South Central is a more temperate semi subarctic climate. South West is considered to be an oceanic climate. The North Slope is part of the arctic.

There are beekeepers in every region except the North Slope. The Interior, where I am, has a climate similar to Yukon Territory, whereas the largest city, Anchorage, is more similar to Missoula, Montana. Interior Alaska has been considered a desert climate, with the majority of precipitation being in the form of snow, but that has been changing. In the last several years we’ve been getting regular rain throughout the summer. Our region has recorded the hottest and coldest temperatures in the state.

Typical bee hive set ups in the Interior and most of Alaska are the wooden Langstroth and polystyrene hives. New beekeepers and those who want to replace dead colonies have to import bees that typically come from the almond fields of California. According to the AK Natural Resources Conservation Services/USDA, Alaska imports over nine million honey bees each spring. They arrive in four-pound boxes. We are not permitted to import bees in ways other than by box due to the risk of bringing American and European Besides mites, one of the biggest threats to our honey bee colonies is the use of pesticide mosquito sprays that are used even though our mosquitos do not carry any viruses or disease. These sprays kill our bees, song birds, aquatic life etc. In the Interior of Alaska, our main honey flow happens around late July. Preparation for overwintering starts in the spring so that we have large healthy colonies going into winter.

Some challenges for Alaskan beekeepers—particularly in the Interior: We have very long, very

cold and very dark winters that can make keeping our bees alive during the winter intimidating for new beekeepers. However, beekeepers in Interior of Alaska have had generations of successful overwintering of their colonies. To survive, hives either have to be stacked, insulated and wrapped if they are to stay outside. If they’re overwintered in one of the various styles of bee barn, then they winter in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment for a winter that can last up to seven months. The queens who make it through our winters are highly valued because one of the reasons for survival is good genetics. Those who overwinter their bees prefer to make their own queens with an occasional import of a Carniolian, Saskatraz or queen with Russian genes - all of which do well in our state.

The Interior and Alaska as a whole has a very short bloom season Our green up typically happens in April, when temperatures are too cold for bees to forage. Gardeners used to not plant until June 1 as a rule, but since 1992, our gardening season has lengthened by a month due to climate change. Our bees typically have from late April/May until the end of July/start of August to do their magic. During this time daytime temperatures rage from in the area of 40ºF to 70ºF (4ºC-21ºC). However, it’s not unusual for our temps to go up into the 80ºF-100ºF (26ºC—37ºC) range. In the recent past we were able to predict when winter was coming by the rate of bloom out by the fireweed flower. When our fireweed was finished blooming, it was our cue to get prepared for winter. That has changed. Daytime freezing temperatures can start as early as September or wait until October. This puts our bees in a pollen dearth that can happen by mid-August. At this time the temperatures can be warm enough for bees to forage but we don’t have any natural pollen resources for them. This is when we have to feed our bees a pollen substitute as well as sugar syrup in a 2:1 ratio. We don’t leave honey in our hives for the bees during winter because it contains too much moisture and doesn't enable our winter bees to suspend their need for a cleansing flight for the long winter months ahead. We hive our bees up once the daily temperatures are consistently below 32ºF (0ºC). Winter can last as long as seven months with average temperatures ranging from 0ºF to –35ºF (-17ºC— -37ºC). Regardless of the averages, we typically have weeks of temperatures of –35ºF (-37ºC) and colder. It’s not unusual for our winter temperatures to go down to –50ºF (-45ºC). These temperatures are without a windchill.

Around winter solstice we have approximately 21 hours of darkness with about three hours of dusk. By spring equinox we have 12 hours of daylight, that gradually increases to 24 hours of sun by June 21, which is summer solstice. Even though we have 24 hours of daylight, our honey bees don’t forage for the full 24 hours. In summer, I typically see my bees come in from foraging about 7pm in the evening, even though there is enough light to make it appear like it’s late afternoon. The pollen they bring into the hive can be almost white (wild rose), green (bluebell), blue (fireweed) or lots of different shades of gold. The honey made by our bees is mostly sold locally in farmer’s markets and locally-owned stores. Alaskans have an appreciation for goods that are produced within in the state and honey is no exception. Beekeepers have strong community support as well as support from our Department of Agriculture.

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