Catching a buzz

Peninsula beekeepers prepare for upcoming season

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

There's a buzz on the street and it's not the sounds of gossip or hearsay, but rather the buzz of the honey bee as peninsula apiculturists gear up for the spring beekeeping season.

Apiculture or beekeeping as it is commonly referred to, can be a hobby or a full-time job, and is practiced by millions of people worldwide.

Alaska is different than most places though, and because of the prolonged winter months, beekeeping can be very challenging in the Great Land. Although wintering bees in Alaska is possible, many beekeepers opt to order new bees every spring to ensure a strong and healthy hive.

Rosy Thompson is one of many peninsula beekeepers who will be ordering bees soon. Thompson typically orders her bees from California out of a catalog, but she also recommends online perusing.

"The queen comes in her own little cage within the box," Thompson said as to how the bees arrive. The queen remains separate so as not to be injured by other bees during the stressful time of shipment.

"The box of bees itself is three to four pounds in weight, which comes out to about 1,500 bees per pound," Thompson said.


Mersch displays a jar of honey she harvested from her hives last July.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

She got into beekeeping back in 1985 after relatives from the Lower 48 sent up honey from their own bees.

She said the honey was so delicious that it inspired her to take a beekeeping course at Mat-Su Community College with her cousin. They found the course fascinating and she's been keeping her own bees ever since. She also currently teaches the Honey Bees and Beekeeping course offered through the Soldotna Community Schools.

"My cousin in Anchorage keeps her bees on the roof," said Thompson. But Thompson keeps hers in a remote swampy area.

Bees can be kept in a variety of places including porches or backyards. Bees do best, though, when given a southern exposure and are kept away from busy areas.

"Different locations can yield different colors and flavors of honey depending on what flowers are blooming," said Thompson. "My honey is clear, with a tangy, delicate flavor."

She attributes these qualities to the Queen Ann's lace and other flowers that grow in close proximity to her hives.

Honey is a main perk for many people who keep bees, but for people like Pam Mersch it's an appreciation for the complex social system of the insects that has kept her involved in apiculture for the last four years.

"The honey is a big plus, but it's more about how fascinating they are," said Mersch. "Bees are neat little creatures. I watch them for hours at a time in summer and I always learn something new."

She maintained three hives through this season's "unusual winter." She lost one due to faulty heating equipment, but said the other two have been doing good with the above average temperatures.

She said they've recently been getting out for cleansing flights and exercise critical components to bee health.

Mersch has established quite a rapport with her hives. She knows their individual temperaments well and can even smell the differences in the pheromones the bees use for communication.

"The smell of opening the hive in June and July is the sweetest smell," Mersch said.

Beekeeping isn't without some danger, though, and anyone who works around bees long enough will eventually be stung. However, most of the peninsula apiculturists don't seem to mind the possibility.

"Stings aren't as scary as people think," said Mersch. She's only been stung four times in the four years she's kept bees. "They're gentle creatures and usually only sting when provoked."

Bees stings may be avoided by most people, but not Alvin Chong. It's the bee's stinging potential that got him interested in beekeeping. It's part of apitherapy, or more specifically, bee venom therapy the medicinal use of bee venom to treat a wide variety of inflammatory and degenerative diseases.

The world of scientific literature contains more than 1,500 articles on the subject. Bee venom is known to contain 18 active substances including Melittin, which is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory agents known to exist. Melittin has been speculated to be more than 100 times more potent than hyrdocortisol.

Chong uses bee venom therapy to treat his wife who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

"A bee is held over the joint or area of the body affected, and then stings her," said Chong. "The number of stings, and frequency of the them depends on the problem."

Chong said he may perform up to 10 stings a day on his wife, every other day.

"It sounds like a lot, but in China they have been known to do up to 200 stings a day," he said.

Although this may seem a little unusual as health care goes, a medical service is still being provided and as such the price can quickly add up.

"We used to pay $75 a sting," Chong said referring to the service they received in Hawaii, their previous home until they moved to Soldotna in November.

"It's not for everyone," admitted Chong. "But five years ago my wife was almost cripple, and was developing other complications from her previous treatment. Then we started the bee venom therapy. Now she can move around, she goes to work, she can even dance again."

While bee venom therapy has already proven useful in helping with the pain and swelling for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, it has wide application potential for other ailments as well.

Acute injuries like tendinitis and bursitis have responded well to bee venom therapy. Venom can also flatten out and fade the color of scar tissue. It has even been used to treat multiple sclerosis, but it's currently poorly understood as to how this happens. The MS Association of America is currently studying the effects of be venom on patients in an effort to learn more.

So this spring as the sky turns a deeper blue, the grass a little greener and the flowers start to bloom, think twice before swatting at the familiar gold and black stripped insects buzzing about they may belong to a friend or neighbor.

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