On a clear December day, a blanket of crunchy snow coats the rooftop of the 49th State Brewing Company’s warehouse in Anchorage. Tim Huffman shows off the bees he takes care of on the roof. The brewery hired him to keep bees for sustainable honey for making beer.
“I have eight hives going into winter here,” Huffman said.
Each hive box is made of polystyrene, a condensed styrofoam material which retains heat much better than wood, and each stack of boxes was packed with foam insulation on all sides. Huffman pointed to a small hole at the base of one of the hives.
“If it was a little warmer, even just five or six degrees warmer, we could see them crawling around in that little entrance,” Huffman said. “They’re in there, nice and toasty.”
That insulation is one of the keys to getting these bees through the winter. The bees generate heat by vibrating their flight muscles and the well-insulated hives seal it in, keeping the colony warm.
Huffman estimates Alaska has at least a thousand “backyard” or noncommercial beekeepers. Many keep colonies for beeswax and honey. Huffman said in some places, honeybees can survive cold winters in the wild as long as they find an insulated space to live in, like a hollow in a tree. But he said Alaska’s winters are too long.
“North Dakota, Montana, Michigan — there’s feral bees that successfully overwinter on their own in those climates,” Huffman said. “But they get occasional warm spells, where they can fly out. And they also get early pollen and nectar much earlier than here.”
Alaska beekeepers have to make sure their colonies have enough food to survive the winter. Huffman gives his colony extra sugar syrup in the fall so they can save it for the winter and he puts sugar in their hives early in winter just in case they run out of food.
Huffman said it’s common practice in places with long winters, like Alaska, for beekeepers to kill their bees when the weather cools by vacuuming them or drowning them in soapy water. But he said he didn’t want to do that. He said learning how to keep his bees buzzing through the winter has been a lot of trial and error.
“People need to use modern gear and modern methods,” Huffman said. “I get my bees through the winter, not because I’m some genius that figured out some trick. It’s because I’m stubborn, and I know how to use the internet.”
Huffman tries to pass on that knowledge to as many people in Alaska as possible. He’s involved in local beekeeping communities and he runs a YouTube channel with instructional videos for beekeepers.
Anchorage beekeeper Christine Wilcox, one of Huffman’s converts, had struggled to keep bees alive for seven winters.
“Not being able to overwinter was frustrating and I tried very hard,” Wilcox said. “I had wooden equipment just like most people start, that was what was available readily.”
In past years, she’d ended the winter with just a small clump of bees huddled together for warmth — not enough bees for the colony to survive the year. But last winter, she learned about Huffman’s methods and switched to insulated polystyrene hive boxes. She loaded up her colonies with a lot of food before it got cold. And when she opened the boxes last spring, things looked different.
“When you open them, if you see lots and lots of bees on the top of the frames, that’s a really good sign you have good density,” Wilcox said. “And they were very dense, so it (was) many thousands of bees.”
All three of her colonies survived through last winter.
“I was dancing,” Wilcox said. “When you realize that they’ve overwintered, I was elated. I’m attached to my bees in a weird way. Even though they’ll sting me, they’re my buddies.”
Back on the rooftop of 49th State Brewing, Huffman pointed at the hundreds of dead bees that dotted the snow around the hives.
“You can see there’s dead bees, and that’s fine,” Huffman said. “There (are) dead bees all winter long. They went into the winter with — I don’t know, like 25 or 30,000 bees, and they’ll come out of winter with 15,000 bees.”
But Huffman said as long as enough bees make it to spring, the colony can survive another year.