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Interior Alaska, honeybee Eden under Midnight Sun

Laurel Andrews
Steve Petersen's hives are active during a warm afternoon in June.
Laurel Andrews photo
Petersen teaching an intermediate class.
Laurel Andrews photo
Plucking the queen bee from her hive.
Laurel Andrews photo
Fairbanks beekeeper Steve Petersen pulls a frame from a top bar hive.
Laurel Andrews photo

FAIRBANKS -- As I creep down the wide, rocky steps leading to Stephen Petersen’s house, the air is still and oddly quiet. And then I realize why. I have only ever come by in early summer, when dozens of beehives line the deck, and the hum of thousands of honey bees floods the air. Summer is fading fast now. Petersen’s hives have been camped out around Fairbanks for months. Without their mellow buzzing, something seems amiss.

Petersen is heading to the Fairbanks Farmer’s Market for the day, but has some time to talk beforehand. We sit in his living room, where two cats linger sleepily, and a small solarium by the front door overflows with mementos from his world travels.

For Petersen, beekeeping is more than a hobby or a job. It’s his way of life. His voice mail says he’s “Steve, the bee guy”, but people in Fairbanks think of Petersen as more of a honey bee guru. He is the man to call with questions. He’s where you buy your bee gear. He’s the teacher of beginning and intermediate classes. And he’s a major distributor of bees. Every year Steve ships more than 400 packages of bees from an apiary in northern California, which he distributes to some 130 beekeepers in Interior Alaska.

Who needs a bee suit?

I first met Petersen about 15 years ago. He came over to inspect my dad’s hives, who at the time had been beekeeping for about five years. I was struck by Petersen’s attire – or rather, his lack of attire. He wore no bee suit, no veiled hat, no gloves. He was stung five or six times in 30 minutes. In the years since, I’ve never seen him in any sort of protective gear, and I’ve seen him get stung many more times.

Petersen got started in beekeeping in 1984. After planting some apple trees on his property with his wife at the time, he thought, “Well, we need bees to pollinate the apples.” He got his first batch of bees and “in the first 30 seconds, it was like falling in love,” he muses. “I was absolutely mesmerized.”

From there, he started up a steep learning curve. He devoured information on all things apis mellifera (the Latin name for the honey bee). Experiments began. He tried overwintering his hives for nine years, usually with poor results. He raised a hive in a 55-gallon drum. At one point, he kept 150 hives with a friend, but that started to feeling like “work”, he says.

This year, Steve has 25 hives, all of the Russian variety. Between managing them, teaching, selling equipment, and selling honey, his fleeting Fairbanks summers are packed.

Although it may seem odd that Fairbanks -- notorious for its dark, frigid, and seemingly endless winters -- would be a functional beekeeping habitat, summertime makes for prosperous colonies. Long days spur the queen to increase the amount of eggs she lays, creating huge colonies in comparison to hives close to the equator. A good hive in Fairbanks will have as many as 60,000 worker bees come July. In Hawaii, a successful colony will have half that. More workers mean more foragers – and that means more honey.

Petersen’s long-term average honey haul per hive is about 6 gallons; this year he expects less, due to this summer's abundant rain.

But when summer comes to its abrupt end, what is a Fairbanks beekeeper to do?

Bees help him travel the world

Fifteen years ago, Petersen realized a “perfect opportunity” that solved that question: He would head abroad. His busy Fairbanks summers essentially pay for a five-month vacation, he says. He will soon head into his 16th winter of international travel, mostly in Asia and Africa, where he visits third-world locales to teach villagers how to keep bees. His travels are a combination of volunteer, low-paying and decent-paying gigs.

When I speak with him, he’s just returned from a summer trip to Egypt, where he was assessing bee colonies for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Apparently the feds liked his work, he says, because they’ve invited him back this winter.

Also on his winter itinerary is a trip to Northern Thailand, on the Myanmar border. He was contacted by Bees for Development, a charity based in the United Kingdom, about Thai villagers grappling with a major elephant problem. After being displaced by a huge hydroelectric dam, villagers are now sandwiched between the dam and a national park in the depths of the Thai jungle. Wild elephants have taken to storming onto their land and ripping up their crops. Villagers need a way to repel them. Bees for Development thinks Petersen can help.

In Africa, Petersen explains, villagers string up bee colonies along their gardens, so that when elephants barge in, they are promptly chased off by the irritated bees. They want to try this strategy in Thailand. In Africa, however, the bees are more aggressive, and there’s no guarantee that it’ll work elsewhere. But to Steve, the experimentation is necessary. “To me, if it doesn’t work, that’s just as good of information,” he says.

Local honey preferred

Before heading abroad, though, there’s still plenty to do in Fairbanks. Like most interior beekeepers, he kills his hives come autumn. Last winter, though, he decided to try his hand at overwintering, for the first time since the 1990s. He had only 16 hives that summer – far fewer than his usual 25-30 – and he stored them all in his water shed before heading abroad. Seven months later, he returned to find five of those hives flourishing, and now he needs to decide whether to return hives to his shed to brave another winter or send them to California for breeding. Eventually, he hopes that these queens will be used to provide stocks of bees well-suited to overwintering. Overwintering in Fairbanks means more than seven months without flight or sunlight, along with increased risk of Nosema, a vicious bee disease.

Petersen will also continue to sell his Toklat Apairies honey at the Farmers’ Market until autumn for $1 an ounce, the typical price for Interior honey. He tells me that initially, he expected his customers to mainly be tourists. He was surprised to find that up to 90 percent of his sales came from locals. That’s a good thing, and not just for him. “I always tell people, if you don’t keep bees, know a beekeeper, ‘cause there’s no honey like local honey.”

Local honey, in general, is considered higher quality than honey imported from say, China, the world’s largest honey producer. By purchasing local honey, customers are guaranteed honey made from flowers in the region. In Interior Alaska, the main flowers found in honey are fireweed – coveted for its translucence and delicate flavor – several types of clover and vetch, among others. Each flower creates honey with a unique taste, and each batch of honey is different. The gradations of color in any given batch can differ within a harvest season.

We’re nearly out of time, so we head outside, where Petersen shows me a top-bar hive. It’s a type of hive he often teaches villagers to build -- cheap without requiring a lot of equipment or construction skills.

He pulls out a frame. Bees scurry over it, calm but ever-working. They buzz softly, a sign that they are subdued. This particular hive was a swarm – a portion of a hive that took off from its home due to overcrowding. Petersen fashions swarm traps, structures that look enticing to bees, so they set up shop there instead of under the eaves of someone’s home. “My daughter dumped them in here,” he says nonchalantly.

They’ve only occupied this top-bar hive for two weeks, but these busy little creatures have built up an enormous amount of comb.

I’d love to see more, but our time is up, and Steve, a busy-bee himself, has a lot to do today.

Contact Laurel Andrews at Laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com