Notes to a Fellow Alaskan Beekeeper

Poohs Corner Honey

Here are a few notes that I passed along to my mentee about keeping bees in Alaska. Maybe you will find something useful.

Approximate schedule

At last month’s meeting a big topic was that everyone thinks we are at least a week or two behind schedule because of the late spring.

Remember this is what works for me. It may not work for you, and everyone has a different way of doing things. I would like to think that we have been pretty successful. We have only had one swarm and that was our first year. Remember that people keep bees for different reasons. Some keep them for honey, others for pollen, some just keep them for the enjoyment of working in the hives, others keep them for pollinating crops but remember that most of the time your bees are not using your flowers as much as you think they are. Most of the time they are in that 1.5-mile circle from the hive.

Remember everything is compounding, meaning if this happens this happens (ie. a swarm happens a new queen is laid/born/raised/mating flights/etc.).

Everything depends on the weather. I have heard fellow beekeepers that lost their bees to a swarm in the rainy season where it rains for a week straight and the bees stay inside and all a sudden a window of a couple of hours of nice sunny weather and the bees bolt for a swarm! If this does happen this year…as soon as it stops raining after an extended period of days of rain, get out there ASAP and do your hive check.

First week of June is when I add my pollen traps. This may be something that you think about next year. Always a great yield, it tastes great, especially on grapefruit (I know, but try it), and people always want to buy it. You can buy the pollen trap boxes from the Victor’s site. If you decide this next year I can give you some pointers.

Second week of June: Flip entrance reducer, if you haven’t done so, and add the second hive box if you haven’t already. Should have a large amount of pollen coming in and the brood pattern should start looking like a doughnut. Should have drone cells now and queen cups and it is swarm season.

Fourth Monday of the month is the bee club meeting. All months except August and December. September is typically when they do the cookout. They provide the small steaks, hot dogs, and burgers and the rest is potluck. We also do a soup social too. I think that is typically in the spring. At the July meeting, they give out two glass jars (part of your membership) so that you will have one for the fair entry. Dues not due until Fall of 2022 now. You can learn so much from the meetings.

First week of July: Add the honey supers. Watch for swarms. Watch for bearding on the outside which typically means the hive is too hot. I use about eight pennies on two corners of the top box to prop the lit up just enough to circulate the air in the hive. Sticks work too. Be diligent on your hive checks and never go longer than 10 days in between.

First or second week of July: Add a queen excluder between the two medium boxes with the queen (if you can find her) in the very bottom box. Nectar flow will start very soon if it hasn’t already. Remember we are about a week behind you and two weeks behind Anchorage in our flow here in Willow. This is prime swarm time so be diligent in your hive checks!

Third week of July: Cage the Queen using hardware cloth and make a cage about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Just fold the corners over like you are making a burrito. You want to squish it a bit so it will lay between the two medium boxes. The worker bees will continue to feed her, she just can’t lay eggs.

First weekend in August: Depending on the weather, this is when I always harvest. You can pull the frames off and harvest and put those frames back or replace them with others. If you are still trying to build comb this is a great time to start to feed heavy with sugar syrup. Remember you do not have to spin your honey out right away. Some people even pull their frames and place them upright in the freezer and harvest much, much later. A great harvest is about 90 pounds of honey per box. We typically don’t get that much but almost every year we have had more than a couple of hundred pounds at harvest.

Third week of August: I believe it is the Tuesday before the start of the first weekend of the state fair that your entry is due. There are tips on a good entry on the Saba website. We never heat ours up or do anything special, but some people do. The key is not to have bubbles or any flakes of wax in the honey. We always enter because not only do you see how yours stacks up against others but also how yours looks compared to others in your area (color) and who knows you just may win! We have won two first places and two-thirds in the five years we have entered. This is our 7th year as beekeepers and didn’t enter last year because it was canceled. Visit the fair booth and if you can take a turn to volunteer. It is always fun!

When you bottle your honey for sale make sure it has the appropriate label if you are planning on selling it. It must have the weight, what it is and where it is from. We sell ours for $20 a jar and have no problems selling it. We almost always sell out. If you are going to sell it I do not recommend the Mason-style jars as most people will want a squeeze jar. We typically only keep three or four bottles for ourselves. We sell most of ours via social media. I know that you don’t do social but there are other places around town (small mom and pop type stores) that would love to have local honey, especially in the winter. We almost always cover our costs and have paid for all our gear/equipment/etc. years ago and at $20 a jar you pay for your next year’s bees with just a few bottles. You can order plastic bottles from the Victor’s and two bottles will fit in the small flat rate priority mailbox. So, if you are sending it outside it costs, I believe $6.99 for that flat rate.

Remember I said we typically get a couple of hundred pounds of honey—That is an income of about $4000. I think last year we brought in 137 pounds on two hives, and we have just six jars left as of today, so we had an income of about $2620. We don’t keep bees for the money, but it is a nice little income that we typically use to cover our expenses and take a short trip somewhere.

You can sell honey at the fair at the honey booth. I do think that they keep 25%. I think the club member’s name is Jack that runs the booth. The booth is not affiliated with SABA but many of the members volunteer and sell their honey there.

First week of September: Depending on the weather you may be able to get a very small second harvest. We will typically get another 8-10 jars of honey from this harvest but always check this honey with the refractor (I have one, or you can buy your own for about $20 on Amazon) so that you can tell the moisture content you will want to check your main harvest too but if you enter the fair, they will check it for you and tell you what it is. Continue to add sugar water if you are trying to build comb. Hive checks are not a huge deal because you have already harvested and if they do swarm that is okay. 

First week of October: This is typically when I will dispatch the bees. Depending on my timing with caging the queen, typically there are not too many bees that I have to kill. Some people give them away, but I have found out here it is more hassle than it is worth. I use a shop vac with some soapy water. I know it’s not fun killing them, but they will most likely die if you tried to overwinter anyway

After I dispatch the bees, I always do a good scrape down of the extra propolis, especially where the frames rest on the boxes. I also clean off any extra comb around the edges of the frames and scrape off any wax on the insides of the boxes. I do the cleaning in the fall because typically we have a lot of snow still on the ground in April, so I just want to place the boxes out and be ready to insert the new bees.

Always store in a decently cool spot with the boxes on the floor so that mice or any other critters can’t get in. Remember next year’s bees will clean up anything that is left behind.

Early to mid-January: Order your bees for next year. I would highly recommend a second hive. That way if one fails/swarms/etc. You have a second one. A second hive is not that much more work than just one. Plus, you have a good base of drawn comb to add among two hives. I would recommend that you continue with Italians.

Second, Third and Fourth week of April: The start of your third year as a beekeeper!

If you haven’t done it in the last two years, it is required that you register the number of hives you have with the state. Also, if someone calls you from a Wyoming phone number from the Department of Agriculture, they are legit. They collect data about bees and that data is, of course, useful in the study of honeybees, especially in Alaska. I am not sure of the website, but you can find it or ask someone at the club meetings. I have it bookmarked on my laptop.