Dillingham beekeeper abuzz over plan to help hive survive winter

Pamela Murphy checks her honey bee hive. Credit: Avery Lill/KDLG

Honey bees aren’t native to Alaska, but four beekeepers are making an experiment of keeping hives in Dillingham. That’s something that’s been done before, but infrequently. As KDLG’s Avery Lill reports, they are hoping to expand their operations beyond the summer, wintering their bees over. And that is something new.

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Pamela Murphy’s bee box sits in a sunny clearing. Several bees meander toward a small opening in the wooden crate that is about the size of a microwave. The pollen baskets on their hind legs are swollen and bright yellow. Murphy opens the lid to reveal the nine trays that fill the box. She lifts one up. It is teaming with bees that are beginning to build a honeycomb.

“The bees are mostly working on creating the wax comb to have all the space to store honey,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, come late August, early September, we’ll take the frames out of the honey supers and try to extract what honey we have. Then the ultimate goal is to take these bees, insulate the hive and try to winter them over.”

That’s an unusual goal for beekeepers in Alaska, a state without native honey bees. The bees need temperatures above 50 degrees to fly, and they need to fly to defecate. If they do not, then they will become septic and die. When temperatures plunge, most Alaskan beekeepers kill their bees and start over with a new colony in the spring. Bristol Bay temperatures are mild enough relative to the rest of Alaska, however, that Dillingham’s beekeepers might be able to keep theirs alive with the right strategy.

“Bees do go into kind of a hibernation state,” Murphy said. She will insulate the brood box where the bees will spend the winter. Then she anticipates setting up a greenhouse over the brood box to allow the bees to fly a time or two during the cold months.

This project began with a February class at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay campus. Dawn Cogan, a beekeeper from Fairbanks, taught a weekend crash course in Dillingham. Afterward, four students, including Murphy, made a go of it and ordered their own bees.

They found that even getting bees to rural Alaska can be a chore. Some bees got loose in the cargo hold when the first vendor tried to ship Murphy’s bees. After that event, the airline declined to carry the vendor’s goods. The second supplier was more successful at keeping the critters contained. Murphy’s roughly 20,000 Carniolan bees arrived from California a couple weeks ago.

Her hive serves a dual purpose. It is both a hobby and a research experiment that she is conducting in partnership with UAF.

“I’m working with the Bristol Bay Campus and working with Dawn Cogan to basically do the research and find out, can we winter bees over? What does it take to winter bees over?” Murphy said.

Between the bees and the equipment, Murphy has about $600 invested in her hive. If the bees don’t survive the winter, it will be a little over $200 to order more next year. But if the experiment is a success, this will be the first time bees have been successfully wintered over in Dillingham.

The coming months will tell whether the town’s small club of beekeepers can make a hospitable home out of a harsh climate for Dillingham’s new, buzzy residents.