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Putting bees to bed: Overwintering honeybee hives in Alaska

By Heather Hintze 8:37 PM October 25, 2016

The fields at Dee Barker’s Earthworks Farm in Palmer are frozen, the last of her vegetables are covered in a few inches of fresh snow.

That first sign of winter means it’s time to put her honeybees to bed.

“When they go into hibernation, they go into a cluster around the queen to keep her warm,” Barker explained. “The ones on the outside get kind of comatose.”

In their seven years running their Palmer farm, she and her husband, Bruce Hougan, have become experts on how to keep bees over the winter.

They put the hives up on cinder blocks then encircled them with chicken wire. Hougan stuffed in hay he collected over the summer, then covered them with pallet wrap. All of that helps ensure the bees can brave the cold.

“They keep their hive around 98 degrees,” Barker said, noting most of the snow on the top of the hives melts throughout the winter because the bees generate so much heat.

She said it’s a delicate balance deciding when to box in the bees. On Sunday, the sunshine was deceiving — it was 25 degrees outside but the bees seemed to be holding onto summer.

“They don’t need to be in hibernation, they think, when it’s this warm. So they’re out and about,” she said.

Normally when it’s that cold and there’s snow on the ground, the bees aren’t as active.

Barker initially bought bees as pollinators to boost her farm’s produce and flowers. She discovered the honey and that it could be put to good use and opened a roadside stand.

“We started with the moisturizing cream, people asked for lip balm,” she said. “We started with lip balms next, then came perfumes and deodorants and soaps and lotion bars.”

Their line is called Abeille Alaska. Abeille is French for bee. Barker said keeping bees year-round means they’ll have products year-round too.

“It’s really important to have a second income,” she said. “If the farm can produce something else that would be helpful to the market, that would be good. The goal is to have a self sustaining farm.”

Back outside, it didn’t take the bees long to realize the sunshine didn’t bring the warmth. Bees that left the hive for a foraging flight quickly fell to the snow and died.

“That breeze came up for a minute and I think they’re that sensitive to the temperature,” Hougan said to his wife.

With the hives settled down, he could get back to his winter preparations.

Barker said it’s not just her love of bees that drives her to keep them through the winter. It’s also economical: Purchasing nine new hives would cost more than $1,000. And like many newcomers from the Lower 48, Barker said the new bees wouldn’t be used to life in Alaska.

“They come up from California and they’re not acclimatized to the environment,” she said. “It’s a bit of a shock coming from California weather to April weather here in Alaska. So it takes two weeks to get themselves going.”

The winter work is minimal compared to the big payoff in the spring. They keep their hives thriving and Barker gets her own bees back for another year of work on the farm.

KTVA 11’s Heather Hintze can be reached via email or on Facebook and Twitter.

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