Al Chong twisted off the white lid and waited until one of a dozen humming honeybees made a doomed attempt at squeezing through the small crack created at the rim of the transparent jar.
Within seconds the insect was gently immobilized against the top of the bottle cap, held down at the abdomen by Al Chong’s index finger. He then pinched the struggling body between a pair of over-sized tweezers.
Beside her husband, Bunny Chong sat with her right hand laid flat on the table in front of her. Unflinching, she made no sign of alarm as Al Chong guided the bees stinger up against the middle joint of her thumb. The Chongs are beekeepers in Soldotna.
The couples manages hives in order to ensure a constant supply of honeybees for Bunny Chong’s Bee Venom Therapy, also known as BVT, which she uses to treat her rheumatoid arthritis.
The practice of beekeeping across the Kenai Peninsula is on the rise, according to local beekeepers Sarah Souders and Jim Van Raden.
Residents are learning to manage operations spanning small one-hive collections to some numbering in the hundreds. They’re using them for anything from medical benefits to making organic body products, to tasting Fireweed honey, one of the most sought after honey harvests on the planet.
Learning how to manage hives in the harsh Alaskan climate was a subject at this year’s Kenai Peninsula Ag Forum on April 26, at the Land’s End Resort in Homer. The topic was introduced after attendees from last year’s event reported it as a priority, said Amy Seitz, vice president for Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District.
“Ouch, that one hurts,” Bunny Chong said, tenderly rubbing a fleshy area just below the pulsing stinger remaining in her finger. By then, Al Chong had crushed the dying insect in a tissue that held two other tiny carcasses.
Al Chong has been helping Bunny Chong with her BVT for thirty years, since 1984. Annual trips to the doctors office consistently prove the treatment is working, she said.
Bunny Chong said she remembers the date well. She had first started stinging herself months prior to her wedding date, and she wanted to take a break for the ceremony.
At that time the couple was living in Hawaii, and only needed to hop on a motorcycle and ride to a nearby park to gather honeybees, Bunny Chong said.
Bunny Chong would then use the bees immediately, and kill them as soon as they separated from their stingers to keep the bees from suffering, she said.
The two hives they manage, sit in the northern corner of their yard, encased in a metal fence that could subdue a hungry bear, on their Soldotna property. The Chongs annually purchase a few packages of honeybees in early spring through other local beekeepers such as Steve Victor and Rick Lantz, Bunny Chong said.
The practice of using honeybee products for medical purposes is called apitherapy and Bunny Chong when she first heard of it she had a common reaction.
“No way! Are you crazy? I don’t want to get stung by a bee,” Bunny Chong said laughing. Over time she got over the fear of being stung and said the benefits are worthwhile, but it always hurts.
Bunny Chong said she first tried sting therapy when she first realized she may lose her eyesight to rheumatoid arthritis. At that point it was a challenge to walk, let alone teach Hula, one of her passions, Bunny Chong said.
The medicine she was taking could only be administered every six months. She was afraid by the next round she could have permanent damage in her eyes.
Chronic pain, malaria, asthma, epilepsy, and migraines are a few of the diseases and health problems BTV has improved or healed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States.
“The curative effects of bee venom may work through stimulation of the body’s enzyme and immune system, in a way similar to the common drug cortisone,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Bunny Chong said her rheumatoid factors, a test of her body fighting the disease, are consistently low, around 100. She suffers no malformations in her joints, a common symptom of living with the disease long-term, she said.
While she cannot offer medical advice, she wants people to be more people to consider BVT as a way to treat their ailments, Bunny Chong said. She said “do not try it without speaking with a doctor”, because the venom can counteract certain medicines. People who have allergic reactions to bee stings should avoid the therapy, she said.
Managing healthy colonies
From time to time Bunny Chong’s arthritis acts up during the winter months, and neighboring beekeepers that over-winter, give her bees, such as Jim Van Raden, owner of Natural Natures Treats in Kasilof.
Van Raden said he can only keep bees during winter when the colony produced enough pollen and honey to feed themselves through the winter. Honeybees are non-native insects to Alaska meaning any colonies that swarm from a hive and make a go of it in the wild, freeze or starve, he said.
Van Raden has hundreds of hives, and has been a beekeeper for 45 years. He makes and sells his own equipment, and sells the organic, pure honey that his bees produce in the summer and early fall, he said. Each hive contains one colony, and usually has 20,000-60,000 worker bees called drones, and one queen who can live up to five years, Van Raden said. Van Raden, who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for 24 years, said he has seen an increased interest in local beekeeping within the last ten years.
“Beekeeping is harder now than ever,” Van Raden said. Colony Collapse Syndrome, the disbanding and untraceable relocation of entire colonies overnight, affects honeybee populations in the lower 48. However, Van Raden has not heard of any reported cases in Alaska, he said.
However, they do arrive with the same diseases affecting the compromised colonies, Van Raden said. “If the honey bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live,” Van Raden said.
Van Raden said he works hard to give his honeybees a diverse diet of plant life. Behind his two-floor home spans an enormous open, marshy field leading to forested terrain hosting pockets of wildflowers.
Honeybees are the only insects that produce food eaten by human beings, Van Raden said. The taste and color of honey produced by a hive depends on the flowers from which the pollen and nectar were extracted, he said.
Honey produced from the Fireweed bloom in early fall, is one of the most coveted kinds of honey in the world, said local beekeeper Sarah Souders. It is also the largest local harvest of honey, she said. The color is clear white, and the taste is light and sweet.
Souders said she started her hobby 13 years ago. Today she produces organic honey-based body butters and scrubs, builds her own hives, and sells organic honey all over the Kenai Peninsula, and considers herself “obsessed.”
Souders has noticed many new faces popping up in the community in recent years. She said Alaskans are realizing an increasing need to produce food more sustainably.
Every spring, she delivers loads of bee packages to locations in Seward and Soldotna.
“Package prices have tripled in the last few years,” Souders said. However, she still receives requests to teach classes from Kenai to Anchorage on beekeeping practices specific to running hives in Alaska.
Of course she is often asked about the risk of upsetting the nest of tiny workers and inciting a stinging frenzy. She tells this story:
When Souders dumped her first package of bees into her original hives, she wore two pairs of snow pants, secured with layers of duct tape. Today she will go out in a t-shirt.
Bees are docile as long as they don’t feel threatened, Souders said. “They don’t want to sting you.”
Kelly Sullivan can be reached at Kelly.Sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com