This summer’s long, sunny days are a blessing for Kodiak’s honeybees, which are thriving with the unprecedented high temperatures.
Although honeybees are not native to the area, and traditionally are difficult to raise in Kodiak, a few local beekeepers are taking their chances.
One is Judi Kidder, who has been raising bees for the last two years. Where she goes, the bees follow. Literally.
One female guard bee followed her past the boundary of the beehives, all over her front yard while she was giving a tour of her beekeeping operations to a Kodiak Daily Mirror reporter.
“I smell like dead bees,” Kidder said with a giggle.
The challenges Kodiak brings to beekeeping are what made her want to start beekeeping on the island — to prove the naysayers wrong.
“Everyone says you can’t keep bees here,” she said. “It’s easier once you know the challenges.”
According to Kidder, there are two other beekeepers on the island: one in Bells Flats and one in Port Lions.
Kidder’s main challenge with raising bees on The Rock is keeping them alive through the winter, she said.
“The biggest problem with (raising) bees (in Kodiak) is the moisture. Bees can handle cold, but not wet,” Kidder said. If she doesn’t take precautions, “condensation will drip down (the beehive) and they’ll freeze.”
Kidder sat outside of her house among her hive boxes “being one with the bees,” and sporting an all-white beekeeper’s suit. She was examining the overall health of her beehives and searching for queen bees.
“It’s like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo,’” Kidder said while trying to spot the queen bee in the middle of a colony.
“There can only be one ruler per hive,” she said.
If more than one queen is born, they will fight to the death; or the first queen that is born will give the order to tear apart each cell that contains an unborn queen, Kidder said.
Even though bees were flying around her head, she said she didn’t worry about being stung because in addition to the protective gear she was wearing, the bees “are just doing their thing,” and not stressed or angry.
For this reason, she said she doesn’t need to use a smoker: a tin contraption with a spout on one side and a bellows on another which is used to calm bees by generating smoke from burning flammable material inside the contraption.
People “get over their fear of bees once they’ve been in a suit,” she said.
New Zealand-born Kidder, who had raised bees in her native country for four years, is a one-woman beekeeping encyclopedia.
“Bees are smart,” she said. They will carry out dead or sick bees to clean out the hive. They will also do a waggle dance to direct their fellow bees to food and water sources.
The waggle dance is always oriented toward the sun, Kidder said. The speed of the dance shows how much food there is; and the size of the figure eight shape they make communicates how far the food source is from the hive.
The New Zealand native also knows how many days ago an egg was laid, where a queen bee is located by listening to the varied buzzing sounds, and which plants the bees have been pollinating.
“Fireweed,” she said of her Carniolan honeybees’ current diet. “It’s been blooming like crazy.”
Bees also love to pollinate cherry and apple trees, she said. That is one of the reasons she began to raise bees in Kodiak.
“I had heard talk for years that people don’t have such success with apples. I know that different flowers need different pollinators,” Kidder said. “Some (plants) do need honeybees.”
Kidder’s beehive boxes are wooden boxes with screen inserts. The smaller hives are in one hive box, while the larger hives are on two or three levels.
Each of her hive boxes was filled with five or 10 screen inserts that the bees were using to build their wax on.
Holding up the screen inserts to eye level, her nose almost touching the swarms of bees, she pointed to the individuals with blue pollen on their legs. The blue pollen is from fireweed, she said. That’s how she knows her honeybees — which are single-source feeders — were feeding on the pink perennial.
Moving from one hive box to another, Kidder carefully pried open each frame, sticky with propolis: a resin-like material made by bees, and used by humans for its anti-fungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.
In one hive, while searching for the queen, she noticed several screen inserts were heavier than the others, and contained wax of a lighter yellow color than she was used to seeing.
“Wow! That’s exciting!” she said with a beaming smile. Her hives were finally producing honey. She estimated about 80 pounds of honey could be produced in each hive.
Because her six hives are relatively new — since the end of April— most of the honey produced this year will be used as food or insulation to keep the bees alive during winter.
Next year, the bees will produce more honey because their time will not be spent making beeswax, Kidder said.
Kidder estimated that she has about 200,000 honeybees. She ordered them in the spring and said they come in 4-pound packets containing around 10,000 bees which includes a queen and worker bees to start the colonies.
Although excited about her current beehives, Kidder recalled with precise detail the downfall of last year’s hives, decimated because of insecticides used by one of her neighbors.
The bees had pollinated plants that had been sprayed with insecticides and brought the toxic pollen back to their hives. She woke up one Saturday morning to find dead bees everywhere, she said.
“I was devastated because of the loss; I cried,” Kidder recalled.
Kidder lost $1,000 worth of bees and equipment. She had to burn the contaminated beehive boxes and equipment, and start from scratch.
In addition to leaving honey in the beehives as insulation to protect the colonies from the wet winter, she has installed doors on her hives that not only protect bees from the weather, but also from dragonflies and yellow jackets that try to steal honey.
With no winter weather in sight, the bees are thriving, and if they survive, they will be just the beginning of her dream to live a self-sufficient lifestyle.
“We (Kidder and her husband) have a two-acre property with a lake view,” she said. Her plans include building a hoop house and raising goats and chickens in addition to her bees.
Toward the end of the tour, Kidder brought out a bottle of honey she had bottled and is auctioning off on Facebook. The auction has been active for two weeks, going from $10 to $55.
“I have friends all over,” she said.
She will give a talk about beekeeping at the fairgrounds during the Kodiak Rodeo and State Fair on Aug. 31.
“I love my bees,” Kidder said. Beekeeping is “so relaxing. I learn so much from them all the time.”