The Bee People of Haines try to keep dry
September 26, 2019
Bees wintering in Haines do not require all that much more than humans do- "plenty of food," according to local beekeeper Darren Schweinefus. "And moisture will kill them," he added.
Recently Schweinefus inspected his hives, peeling back a layer of canvas covered in propolis, a natural layer of glue bees make to seal their hive, to expose a humming population of some 25,000 Alaska honey bees. The hive is kept in a rectangular wooden structure, a horizontal hive, in Schweinefus' yard. It's one of seven. Smelling the waxy substance on his hand, he interrupts his own thought. "I always love the smell of propolis," he said.
Since importing bees from Washington state in 2017 (as a source of early springtime queen bees Alaska couldn't provide), Schweinefus has shared his hobby with a handful of community members willing to buy in. One of them, Marnie Hartman, calls Schweinefus her bee grandpa "because he's so wise."
Hartman got into bee keeping because it aligned with her permaculture lifestyle in Haines. "I have this internal passion for feeding things that then feed me," she said. "It goes in this whole cycle, I plant flowers and veggies, the bees feed the flowers and the flowers feed the bees and I feed the bees and the bees give me honey and promote the garden."
The largest supplier of packaged bees in the state, Alaska Wildflower Honey, is a two decades old family beekeeping operation out of Wasilla. Co-owner Steve Victors said the biggest misconception around his business is that "people think that bee keeping and Alaska really don't go together. But people have been keeping bees here for years and years," he said.
The biggest challenging of beekeeping in the north, Schweinefus and Hartman corroborated, is the length of winter. "Each individual bee is incapable of enduring lengthy periods of excessive cold," according to Fedor Lazutin of the book 'Keeping Bees with a Smile.' "When the outdoor temperatures falls below 45-55 degrees Fahrenheit, bees in the hive begin to gather in a tight, compact formation referred to as a winter cluster....(for) shared body heat, lower overall heat loss, and, consequently, lower consumption of honey reserves."
Hartman kept her hives alive last winter by storing them in an insulated pallet board "condo" in her shed with exit holes and a large reserve of sugar water.
Schweinefus, who keeps most of his hives near 30 Mile Haines Highway at a friend's house because of drier winter temperatures, wraps his in foam and cuts exits and entrances. He puts dried moss at the bottom of the hive to absorb any liquid- "moisture is the biggest enemy to honey bees in the hive"- and makes sure the bees have plenty of honey and dry sugar before sealing them in for the winter. The bees will stay in the hive until the temperature warms to 56 degrees, when they will take turns vacating for a "cleansing flight" to defecate. "If they don't get that then they poop in the hive, and it all goes downhill from there," Schweinefus said.
Schweinefus and Hartman both collect a few quarts of honey each August from their hives, but they say that's not what keeps them at it.
"It's just interesting, the whole way the hive works," Schweinefus said. "It's this neat little factory ran by pheromones."
For Hartman, she said keeping bees is surprisingly fun, and the perfect example of communal living.
"Bees are so cool. No one bee can survive on their own," Hartman said. "They have to have each other to do all of their jobs."
Natural pollinators in the Chilkat Valley include mason and bumble bees, though Hartman's neighbor, Sabine Churchill, said Hartman's honey bees visited her garden all summer. "It was beautiful to see," Churchill said. "They did a great job pollinating everything."