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The sweetest gift: Alaska beekeeper shares honey with community

Friends, family and neighbors gather at Terry Holtman’s house for “bee day.” This is the day when Holtman and his helpers transfer nearly 200,000 bees into their hives. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Most people meet Terry Holtman on "bee day." Or as he likes to call it, "don't worry bee happy day."

Each spring for the past 15 years, the West Anchorage resident has invited everyone he knows to join him for the annual beekeeping season kickoff party, held in April if the weather cooperates. Last year, around 20 people came to help him transfer nearly 200,000 bees into their new summer homes.

Honeybees aren't native to Alaska, and attempts to winter them over in the Arctic have been met with near-universal disappointing results. Holtman describes his latest attempt, using a modified and insulated motor home, as an "expensive experiment."

So every spring, aspiring beekeepers place orders for new batches of bees from companies in the Lower 48. The bees arrive in April or May, with each emergent hive boxed in a wooden crate with a queen, a few male drones and about 4 pounds of female worker bees. Each box holds up to 15,000 bees in total. On bee day, Holtman and his helpers dump each box of bees into their hives, purpose-built containers that make servicing the hive and collecting the honey easier. In 2016, Holtman had 14 hives.

Terry Holtman is 64, tall and strong with a white beard and an calming smile. He moved to Alaska around the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Working as an auto mechanic, he says the labor rate was better in Alaska than in Wisconsin, where he and his family were living, so he decided to try his luck here.

Holtman and Penelope Gerald check on the “Baptist bees,” so-called because of their proximity to the Baptist Temple. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

"The family I started then is now moved on and gone," he said. "My son and daughter moved on, and everybody else moved on, so now it's myself, five dogs and a lot of bees. And a new family. For me, family is very important."

Holtman's family, as he calls them, consists of a former co-worker and his wife and daughter, all recent immigrants from Uruguay, and a few friends he fondly refers to as the bee girls. Everyone pitches in to help take care of the bees, which seem as much a part of his family as the humans he lives with.

When Penelope Gerald worked with Holtman at an auto shop, he would hand out jars of honey to co-workers. Now she’s helping him tend to his hives, and learning how to become a beekeeper herself. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

One of the bee girls, Penelope Gerald, was a secretary at the auto shop where Holtman worked, and when he worked there, he'd give out jars of honey to co-workers. It wasn't long before Gerald wanted to learn about beekeeping. Since then, she and her friend Kelly Tatum have become an essential part of Holtman's beekeeping process, helping him tend to the hives, spread out across Anchorage, throughout the summer.

Holtman first became interested in beekeeping after seeing a poster advertising lessons sometime around 2000. His first year didn't go so well. "They all died," he said. "It was a little depressing." But the next year he tried again and succeeded. Every year since he's added another hive into the mix.

Holtman and the bee girls check on some hives in East Anchorage. Holtman is holding a smoker, which is used to calm the bees during weekly checkups. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Anchorage, with it's short summer season, is not the ideal environment for beekeeping. Greenbelts, like Fish Creek in Holtman's backyard, might provide enough food for a couple of hives, but in order to support 14 of them, Holtman spreads out across town. A few go up to Tryck's Nursery in South Anchorage, a few in a neighborhood behind Anchorage Baptist Temple (those he calls the Baptist bees), and a few to various friends' backyards.

Beekeepers have been doing their thing in Alaska for decades. Twenty years ago, according to Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association Vice President Tom Elliott, there were a few hundred beekeepers in Alaska. Today he estimates the number is closer to a thousand.

The short season makes it challenging to produce enough honey to make it a full-time job, and the cost of importing new bees each spring means that those who do it, don't do it for the money. Some beekeepers produce enough honey to sell it at farmers markets, but the climate and cost of importing bees each summer conspire to make it a labor of love, rather than a viable business.

Because he spreads his hives out across town, Holtman's beekeeping family extends far beyond home. When he tends to the hives at Tryck's Nursery, he'll often take time to chat with Doug Tryck. The Sunday beekeeping chores quickly turn into a daylong affair.

Holtman chats with Doug Tryck, owner of Tryck’s Nursery in South Anchorage. Holtman’s 14 hives are spread out across Anchorage, with two at the nursery, and he enjoys the chance to chat with the bee hosts during his weekly beekeeping chores. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Honeybees, of course, produce honey, which is usually what people have in mind when they get into this hobby. In a good year, Holtman's hives can produce 40 gallons of the sweet nectar. Bees make honey to supply themselves and their brood with food, and when a beekeeper steals that honey, it encourages the bees to make more.

But for the most part, he just gives it away.

"I've been an auto-body technician for 44 years, and I'm kind of semi-retired," he said. "It's a living, but I'm not going to get rich. Beekeeping keeps me rich in my heart."

Holtman, Gerald, and Kelly Tatum eat lunch after gathering honeycombs one Sunday in July. Gerald and Tatum are Holtman’s “bee girls,” friends who have taken an interest in beekeeping and are helping him tend to his 14 hives. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Giving away honey helps him feel connected with the community, with nature and with the bees.

"I have a deal with the universe," he says. "The way it works for me is that the universe will allow me to manage these bees and learn from them. And what I need to do is, if I get any honey, is to share it with those that need to understand more about nature and bees and the way things really work."

Holtman fills a jar of freshly extracted honey at his home. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Holtman sees beekeeping as an antidote to an increasingly technology-centered world.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're becoming too much of a techno-gizmo type of world. We need to get back to nature a little bit. Not everybody may agree, but it works that way for me.

"I'm not too concerned about the money. I'm more interested in the human element, and humanity's involvement with nature. I might trade some honey for something, but I wouldn't sell it. I'd rather give it away, it makes me feel good in my heart."

Loren Holmes is an Alaska Dispatch News staff visual journalist.

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