Alaska’s wilderness provides resources for one of the purest honey harvests in the world, produced primarily from the Chamerion angustfolium, or fireweed bloom.
On a good year, when the perennial herbaceous plant is particularly prolific, the light, sweet syrup is crystal clear, and the taste unencumbered by the flavors of other wildflowers. Local beekeepers are reporting a good summer, meaning more profits from their honey and honey products.
“Last year was a low year (for blooms), it is very much so better this year,” said the owner of Kasilof’s Eat Me Raw Honey Company, Dan Skipwith. “It has been a nice sunny warm year, so they had ample opportunity to fly. The fireweed didn’t bloom as much last year. Everything bloomed really well this year. The honey is a wonderful color, or maybe a lack of color because it’s so clear.”
Skipwith collects the pollen from fireweed plants to compare to the pollen that is knocked off his honeybees when they enter the hive, so he knows which plants they are retrieving nectar from.
The native plant can be invasive as it is known for taking over land scarred by natural disasters, said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Chief of Visitor Services Matt Connor.
It is generally referred to as a “pioneer species” because it is one of the first varieties to prosper, and because of its ability to thrive in harsh conditions, Connor said.
The weed is especially prosperous after a wildfire, earning it the iconic name.
Skipwith refers to fireweed as the “primary honey crop” on the Kenai Peninsula.
It is the most fed upon species for the honeybees kept by local beekeepers from Homer to Seward because of its prevalence, he said.
The market for fireweed honey, both local and Outside, has been gaining momentum, said Sara Souders, owner of Sarah’s Alaska Honey in Kenai. On a good year, and this has been a good year, she ships hundreds of pounds to the Lower 48.
The rest of her harvest she turns into honey-based body butters, scrubs, lip balm and tinctures. She also builds beekeeping equipment from her newly opened shop, 1103 Oak Avenue in Kenai.
At the highest rate of production, Souders’ 20 colonies can produce 150 pounds of honey apiece.
Each colony, or beehive, consists of a queen and her worker bees. Beehives are stacks of boxes that hold empty frames, usually about ten, upon which the bees construct their comb.
A stack can be as high as seven boxes, Souders said. Each full frame yields about eight-to-ten pounds of honey, and each pound is worth $25, she said.
Most local honeybees are from Outside, and all honeybees have imported ancestors.
Some beekeepers overwinter their hives, but it is a trying process for the bees, Souders said.
Jim Van Raden, owner of Nature’s Natural Treats in Kasilof said honeybees cannot survive in cold northern climates, in a previous Clarion interview. Feral colonies always die off, he said.
When it is raining, or even slightly overcast, honeybees don’t fly, Souders and Skipwith said. During last year’s fireweed season, it was wet and cold much of the time.
“Some years there is no harvest at all, particularly if it rains throughout the fireweed blooms,” Souders.
During the winter months, the bbes are not flying at all, so they are not feeding. A dietary supplement, basically sugar water, is the only option for keeping the hive alive, Souders said. It’s unnatural and does not provide enough nutrients for the insect, so any honeybees that do make it through the winter are not healthy, she said.
Most Alaskan beekeepers ship in their queens annually. All hives must be registered with Alaska’s Division of Agriculture, according to Alaska statutes.
Director for the Division of Agriculture Franci Havemeister said in 2014, 16 people registered their beehives, 162 bee shipments were brought into Alaska, and another 50 queens imported separately. Eight hives were reportedly overwintered from 2013, she said.
In 2015, 36 people registered their beehives, 86 bee shipments were brought in, and 22 hives were reportedly overwintered, Havemeister said. Three years ago there was a designated honeybee inspector who interacted frequently with beekeepers, but the position has since been unfilled.
“I assume there are far more hives in Alaska than what we have registered,” Havemeister said. “It is just an assumption — I believe people may be unaware of the requirement to register their hives.”
However, it is a good idea to do so, said Division of Agriculture Inspection and Regulatory Programs Administrative Assistant Kirk Brown. By registering what comes into the state, potential infestations and the spread of diseases are more easily mitigated and traceable, he said.
If there is an outbreak, the division is the “first place people call,” Brown said. Inspectors will visit the site, take a sample of the potential illness and destroy the hive if a test comes back positive for disease, he said.
A package of bees contains about 15,000 weighing a total of around four pounds, said Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association President, and owner of Alaska Wildflower Honey in Big Lake, Steve Victors.
Every package that comes in is clean, Victors said. Each import is inspected and receives a certification that its contents are healthy, he said.
For the lengths taken to ensure imported bees are clean, hives are not generally affected by the same health issues — including Colony Collapse Disorder — plaguing operations in the Lower 48, he said.
Colony Collapse Disorder is a threat to honeybee health and “the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations in the United States,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture website.
CCD is “a dead bee colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and honey and immature bees still present,” according to the USDA.
No scientific cause for the disorder has been proven, and it is not the only risk to U.S. honeybees, according to the USDA. Mites, fungi and poor nutrition — typically caused by a lack of diversity in diets — for the bees supporting pollination all deplete the health of honeybees, according to the USDA.
“They spread any illness they carry from state to state,” Souders said. “They (the bees) just aren’t healthy.”
The last time an illness occurred in an Alaskan hive was more than five years ago, Brown said, a testament to how picky Alaska’s beekeepers are about where they get their bees.
The less-polluted environment, and diverse diet Alaska’s honeybees are accustomed make fireweed honey all the more desirable, Souders and Victors said. In addition to fireweed, Souders’ said her colonies feed on pussy willow, wild roses, dandelion, which turns into a strong flavored dark honey.
Souders and Victors have consciously incorporated ‘Alaska’ into their company names. The state’s honey products are associated with the wilderness, and emblematic of its unsullied origins, Victors said.
Souders said on a good year, she exports hundreds of pounds of honey out of the state.
The Food Safety and Sanitation program with the State of Alaska does not regulate the sale, extraction, or packaging of raw honey because of the limited risk involved with the product.
A business that sells a a product outside of Anchorage, with a low pH, low water activity and minimal preparation does not require a permit through the state as long as it grosses less than $25,000. There is also no facility monitoring unless complaints are made to the DEC’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program said Section Manager Brehan Kohl.
“The risk is not really there,” Kohl said. “We don’t need to know who the producer is selling to and who is buying the raw honey. We will if they don’t meet the requirements listed in the regulations.”
On the Kenai Peninsula, Souders sells at craft fairs, and out of her shop. She there is one hitch in selling at local markets. People will advertise the homesteader syrup made from sugar, water and plant’s the boiled-down petals as fireweed honey, which Souders said, is not only creating competition, but a health concern. Families that buy the product believe it to be nutrient-packed and even a treatment for some allergies, are consuming something with little to no benefits, she said.
While there are challenges to beekeeping, for Victors and Souders the hobby is worth the worth the work.
Victors said there is much to be learned from honeybees, including their orderliness and industry, good work ethic and generosity. The bees make honey for future generations, despite a lack in immediate benefit for themselves.
It is debated whether the honeybees are conscious of their actions, but regardless, lessons can still be pulled from the docile creatures which, he adds, are not prone to stinging.
“All the principals that are good for life you can see reflected in the beehive,” Victors said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at email@example.com