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News | Nov. 14, 2012

Catching the BUZZ

By Senior Airman Joan King 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron

You're at the Saturday market downtown, and a booth catches your eye. You pick up a jar of amber-colored local honey that claims to reduce allergies and boost energy. But where does it come from?

Local Alaska honey is surprisingly made from honeybees shipped to Alaska, commonly from California.

Although there is no such thing as an Alaska honeybee, these non-native bees pollinate the local Alaska forage, affecting the taste of the honey depending on the location of the pollen.
Master Sgt. Harry Evans and Staff Sgt. Kayla Tomlinson are both Airmen at the 176th Maintenance Squadron and passionate beekeepers. Evans is an aerospace ground equipment supervisor while Tomlinson is an engine mechanic.

Evans keeps his hive on Tomlinson's property along with Tomlinson's own hive. Both are trying out their first year of beekeeping and loving it.

Evans, who chose Carnelian honeybees, noted their aggression and tendency to sting, while Tomlinson chose a friendlier breed, the Italian honeybee.
Tomlinson can attest to their friendliness, as she frequently picks them up and pets them without wearing a beesuit.

People in Alaska generally choose hunting or fishing to fill their free time. But beekeeping is undeniably a unique hobby.
Evans revealed the reason he got into beekeeping.

"I've had a fear of bees, and because I'm scared of them I wanted to get over it, and figured I'd get a beehive," he said.
Besides the obvious benefit of keeping bees, honey, both Evans and Tomlinson agree to the relaxing effects of the bees' hum. Unfortunately, the male bees, also known as 'drones,' are not enjoying the activity of the hives.

"All they do is leave the hive, fly around looking for a queen to impregnate, then their job is done," Evans said. "Then they go back to the hive and they'll eat all the honey. Right now you'll see tons of dead drones because all the females will pull them out because they're done for the year. The females kick the drones out."

You may be wondering how the bees survive the Alaska winters, which is the reason why there is an absence of native Alaska honeybees.

Honeybees in Alaska depend on beekeepers to "winterize" the hives and feed them sugar water to survive.

For beekeepers who are not able to winterize their bees, teams are called out to their hives to euthanize their bees.

"Winterizing is where you protect the hive and keep it at a stable 30 to 40 degrees all winter long so the bees are happy and content. Then once the spring hits, you put them outside," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson suggested a heated shipping container to store the hives, keeping them warm from September to April.

Distinguishing them from other insects, honeybees are known to go into a hibernation-like state for the winter months, where they go dormant and stay in a warm ball to protect the brood, or the eggs.

And for those pesky drafts in the hives? The bees produce wax not only for the structure of the comb, but to plug holes in the hive. This "bee glue" is a stickier and thicker substance that they use for hive repairs.

Evans favorite bee product isn't honey, but is actually the wax from the comb, different from the bee glue.

The wax caps can be scraped off into a jar, and contains residual honey. Evans describes the consistency like chewing Razzles in the way that the warmth of your mouth solidifies the separate wax caps into a single piece of what can only be compared to chewing gum.

Tomlinson describes the importance of "marking the queen," in which you catch the queen bee in a queen cage designed to slip a marker down in, and quite literally, mark the queen with colored markers associated with the age of the queen.

This strategy is used to keep track of how old the bee is and identify the queen for the beekeepers to ensure her efficiency.

"Queens put off a pheromone that other bees recognize and as she starts getting older, the pheromones start to deplete and the other bees can't recognize her so they change over queens," Tomlinson said.
"Plus, the queen will only make one maiden flight in her lifetime, and during that flight, she'll pick up all the sperm cells that she'll ever use to make the brood. Also when she starts running out of sperm cells, she doesn't have any way of improving the hive."

Given that winter has quickly approached, Evans and Tomlinson have winterized their hives and are crossing their fingers that their Carnelians and Italians survive the cold, long winter.
Regardless, you don't have to be Winnie the Pooh to agree that the wait, or a bee sting, is worth the sweet honey. There is definitely a rare quality and taste that local honey provides that beats the store-bought jars of nature's sweetener.

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