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Beekeeping in Iceland 2013

 

 

Beekeeping in Iceland 2007

Iceland is not the first country you think of when you hear about beekeeping. This small island in the north Atlantic is windswept, has heavy rainfall throughout the year and long cold winters. On the other hand in the summer it has daylight 24 hours a day and a lot of native flora which takes advantage of the long days. In 2007 my wife Rita was lucky enough to visit some of the handful of beekeepers in Iceland during a regular visit to stay with relatives. The photos she took and people she met help us to understand a little of how hard it is to keep honeybees in such a hostile climate.

Hives, bees and equipment in Iceland have all been imported from Sweden and Norway where there are strong links. Using bees bred in a Scandanavian climate also means that you stand more chance of the bees surviving the winter. All beekeepers in a temperate climate know that it is not the cold that is the biggest threat to their bees but the wind and the rain. In order to try to overcome the climate hives are protected from the elements as these pictures show.The polystyrene langstroth hives live inside a shelter facing away from the wind. Each hive has a thermo sensor inside brood nest so that the beekeeper       

can monitor the temperature in the cluster from outside.The 4 digital readouts can be seen to the right of Þorsteinn, the beekeeper, in the picture. The photo on the left shows the arrangement for protecting hives favoured by Egill, the Chairman of the Icelandic Beekeepers Assocaition, for protecting his hivesin the winter. All are inside the lean-to structure and like Þorsteinn he has installed sensors to measure the temperature of the brood nest. In his case the read outs are in his bedroom so that on going to bed and rising he can instantly see if his colonies are OK. 

After her trip Rita wrote a full article about her experiences with beekeepers in Iceland for the Beverley Beekeepers Newsletter and it is reprinted here below. 

A cold January afternoon 

It’s a cold, rainy January afternoon and I have just been looking at the beehives. You may be picturing me at Dunswell amongst the trees at the bottom of our garden, but you´d be wrong. I´m just outside Reykjavik in Iceland. I´m over here visiting my sister Anne who has lived here 30 years. We were at dinner with friends of hers the night before and the conversation had turned to bees and honey, as it so often does. I knew Lester had read an article in the American Bee Journal about an Icelandic doctor who kept bees. Olga our host said she knew of a beekeeper and would try to get us some Icelandic honey. The next day, true to her word she telephoned, not only could she get me some honey, but if we could be ready in half an hour, we could visit the beekeeper himself. Now, as you know, I am not the beekeeper of the family, but how could I refuse! 

Olga picked us up and we headed out, leaving the tarmac roads of Reykjavik for the lava roads and volcanic landscape a shortway beyond. There was still snow around and the trout lake we passed was frozen. We pulled up at Þorsteinns house and he came out to greet us, it was still raining, but we followed him to the back of his house. Þorsteinn spoke no English and told Anne and Olga they would have to translate for us. At this point I wished Lester was with me, what questions should I ask so that I sounded as if I knew about beekeeping, and would I remember his answers. Þorsteinn has been keeping bees for 3 years. The biggest problem is keeping the bees alive over winter. He had built a wooden hut and had 4 hives in it. Each one had a thermometer in the centre of the hive, with a display outside (see picture) so that he could see what the temperature was inside the hive and know if the bees were still alive. There are no large crops grown in Iceland, and the bees forage for any flowers they can, starting with dandelion, followed by birch then blueberries which is similar to ling heather. He said he moved the bees around his garden, which seemed strange to me, as I thought bees had to be moved more than 3 miles, but maybe he moved them only once out of his winter house. The wind is a big problem in Iceland all year round, so colonies never get really strong, which is another problem for the winter. Þorsteinn and his wife have lived here for 40 years on the shores of lake Elliðávatn. Its a smallholding and he has sheds for thousands of chickens. They have 2 poly tunnels and grow root and salad vegetables as well as housing apple trees in them. Interestingly, they did not use bees to polinate the apple trees, but did it themselves. The house looked down over pine trees onto the lake and there was a feeling of remoteness which 40 years ago it was. Sadly, Reykjavik has now expanded out and the view from the otherside of the house was of cranes and building sites. The population of Iceland has grown to 300,000, two thirds of which live in the Reykjavik area. 

Þorssteinn seemed pleased to have us visiting, and rang the chairman of the Icelandic beekeepers society, who lived in the same area to see if we could visit him. There are 20 members in the Icelandic society, 10 of whom have bees. Egill is a doctor at the hospital in Selfoss, 57 kilometres over the mountains. He spoke good English, and told me he began beekeeping in Sweden 19 years ago. He returned to Iceland about 9 years ago and continued his interest. He told me they can only buy queen bees from Sweden and Norway and he gets all his equipment from Sweden. He uses a 9 frame electric extractor, w hereas Þorsteinn has a 5 frame manual. Egill is overwintering his bees in an enclosed leanto attatched to the house. He too has a thermometer in each hive, and has the reader on his bedside table. He keeps them fairly close to the house in the summer, and told me they were so gentle he did not really need to wear protective clothing. They had there first swarm last year! Egill has 4 horses in stables on his garden. He had heard that bees and horses aren´t good together, but that is not his experience. He told me that he can get 30 lb of honey per hive, and he has 5 hives. He gets the equivelent of £11 per pound for his honey, and even at that price soon sells out. With so few hives, and so little Icelandic honey produced its not yet available in shops, but clearly there is a growing interest in the craft and a hope that bees will bee kept all around the country in the not too distant future. 

Þorsteinn gave me some honey to take back to Lester and was interested to find out what he thought of Icelandic honey. In return, I am arranging for a jar of East Riding borage honey to be delivered to both our hosts. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Þorsteinn and Egill, but wished Lester had been with me to find out the nitty gritty of Icelandic beekeeping. I am sure a trip to Iceland will be on the cards for Lester in the not too distant future.          

Agent for Thorne Beekeeping Equipment

 

American Bee Journal vol. 146 no. 11 november 2006

 

 

 

ICELAND…Land of Fire and Ice…

AND HONEY!!!

 

            Whenever one thinks of the country of Iceland, one thinks of endless snowcap mountains and ice fields.  Despite the name, Iceland is far from being a land of snow and ice.  Greenland, its next door neighbor to the north, takes that moniker.   Iceland lies on the 66th degree latitude, similar to Alaska.  Yet, the Gulf stream moderates the climate and provides more changeable weather and warmer temperatures than one would expect that far north.  Thus, the winter temperatures in Iceland are similar to New York City and the average temperature in the summer average 58° Fahrenheit (daytime temps in the upper 60s and nightime temps in the lower 50s..

            Our trip to Iceland started with contacting a pioneer beekeeper on the island.  Egill Sigurgersson is a general practitioner in a hospital near Reykjavik and, when doing his internship in Sweden, had as his mentor, a Swedish physician/beekeeper. In 1988, he became enamored with the craft of keeping honeybees. He was amazed that the physician/beekeeper in Sweden was getting 80 kilos per hive (176 pounds.)   ‘If they can do it in Sweden, I think I can do it in Iceland,’ was his first thought.  When returning to Iceland to begin his practice in 1998, Egill brought with him five hives of bees from Sweden.  It was not an easy task as he had to contact the government to get documentation to bring them in. An entire half-year was spent doing the paper exercises to get the permission he needed to bring them into the country. They had to be licensed, certified free of disease and, in addition, he had to pay a tax on them.  As far as he knew, there were no beekeepers in Iceland keeping bees at that time.  Unfortunately, the two strongest died in flight.  That first autumn, three survived but one died in the winter of ’99 and the other two were lost the next winter.  This really surprised him because they had never lost a colony in Sweden.

            The next year he followed the same procedure…overwintered the same as they do in Sweden…but gave them more shelter.  It was still not enough because he lost four colonies and 3 queens that winter.   As he has looked at his management practices in retrospect, he feels that the colonies had perished, mainly because of the cold wind, long confinement, and lack of cleansing flights in the winter.  In Iceland, the summer is short but the honey flow begins the end of April and goes through until September when the first frost comes.  The bees fly into October since flowers are still in bloom.  He feeds them with sugar syrup in the fall and granulated sugar in the winter but it still does not seem to be enough to pull them through the long, Icelandic winter months when the sun only rises above the horizon for about four hours a day.

            About a year ago(actualy 2000 Egill), Egill went to Norway and purchased thirty colonies from a Norwegian beekeeper and had them ferried over.  Obviously this was an expensive proposition.  Since then, only one has survived and that, in a forested area.

            In winter of 2000, Egill decided to start a beekeepers’ group.  He offered a course at a local community education center and advertised it on two of the larger radio stations and in the local print media.  The response was great.  Since then, he has been offering classes every year and, this year, had five sessions for new beekeepers.  Each beekeeper has an opportunity to purchase  a beehive and start-up equipment. The cost of starting up a hive in Iceland is extremely expensive – about $700 in American dollars for the woodenware, wax, and bees.  Egill sponsors field days during the spring, summer, and fall to teach and advise good management practices.  Most of the new beekeepers have become as passionate as he about their new hobby.  There are about fifteen to twenty beekeepers in the group.  Most of them keep bees in and around the capitol city of Reykjevik but there are about seven hives in the north-east part of the country.  We met with them at one of their meetings at a picnic table in Egill’s back yard.  Coffee and a business meeting followed and we were introduced to the five members present.

Kristiana Bergsdottir is a computer specialist and belongs to a tree propagation group.  Her(1 of her 2 Egill) hive died over the winter but she is looking forward to starting a new hive this summer.  Her greatest concern today is the fact that her neighbors are afraid of bees and don’t want them in the neighborhood.  We suggested she put them on the roof or on an upstairs porch.

            Tomas Gudjonsson is a biologist at the local zoo and botanic garden.  His hive survived and was united with the remnants of Kristiana’s queenless colony and he, Kristiana and we moved that hive into the botanic garden one evening.  We placed it outside the window of Tomas’ office where he can monitor it daily and where it will be out of the way of the garden tourists.  Tomas did an interesting thing this past winter.  He sent a complimentary jar of honey to the president of Iceland and his wife.  The president’s wife was so pleased and thankful that she wrote a very flattering note, asking for more honey to serve when they were entertaining dignitaries.  Everyone was pleased that the local honey had received such a positive response.

            Hafberg Thorisson is a green grocer who raises twenty-seven kinds of herbs and spring greens hydro-ponically.  He has had surprisingly good luck with his bees.  Three of his colonies survived the winter.  His grandfather had kept bees in the 1940s and 1950s in the north of Iceland where, surprisingly enough, he even had apple orchards.  Yet he admits that the north of Iceland is considerably warmer than the south in the summer and winters are colder, drier with more snow.  It is less windy, making beekeeping more apt to be successful.

 

Bjorn Thomsson is a greenhouse specialist, growing bananas in Iceland. Most of the fruits, vegetables, and flowers are grown in biospheres or greenhouses in Iceland and it was suggested that perhaps honeybees would be appropriate inside greenhouses to pollinate the plants.  Bumble bees do that chore now and the Icelandic beekeepers noted that honeybees tend to fly towards the glass and the sunlight in the greenhouses, making them more confused than productive.  Bees are raised mainly as a hobby, not for pollination in Iceland.

            Our host and the ‘pioneer’ of beekeeping in the country of Iceland – Egill Sigurgersson – shared many of his observations with us.  As president of the Icelandic Beekeeping Organization, he wrote and received a grant of 500,000 ISK (Icelandic kroner, valued at about $7,100 in American dollars) that will be used to educate new beekeepers, give continuing education to experienced beekeepers, and to try new tactics to enable the stressed colonies to produce more honey and to winter better.  As visitors to the country to study the beekeeping industry, we were named in the grant as active participants in studying how beekeepers could be more successful.  Since we come from a considerably colder climate, the idea was that perhaps we could offer some suggestions about over-wintering colonies more successfully.

            Probably the biggest problem that Icelandic beekeepers face is the wind.  It blows incessantly and, when we were there in May, the temperature was 5.4°Celsius or about 43° Fahrenheit.  We went into the hives but the bees were not flying.  Spring comes later to Iceland than to the upper mid-west.  Even the spring build-up is far behind what we experience here in the United States.  In the summer, the hive population does not get big enough to survive the winter.   Everyone agreed that they should be given more protection in the winter—perhaps wrapped, have a shelter built around them, or even winter them in a root cellar. 

            The bees are virtually disease free.  There has been no sign of varroa, tracheal mite, American or European foulbrood, no small hive beetle, and no chalkbrood.  Because there is no disease, there is no reason to treat with chemicals.  It appears that bees and their subsequent honey have joined the purity of the air and water for which Iceland is so well known.

            Exactly how much honey can one expect to make per hive in these rather harsh circumstances?  Egill got 60 kg. per hive in 2003.  That’s the equivalent of 132 pounds   per hive. The flower source was mainly from salix (many varieties, similar to our willow, dandelion, clover, heather, and wasteland (wild flower.)  Just as in Europe, honey is preferably eaten as a semi-solid.  To get this consistency, honey is stirred twice a day for two weeks to enable a fine grain to form.   In addition to giving it as gifts, he took his entire crop to a sale that is set up on December 23 in town where stores are open until 11 p.m.  He had packaged his honey in 350 gram jars (approximately 12 ounces) and sold them all for 1000 ISK (a bit over $14.00) each.   Lots of people were interested and, when he heard complaints about the price, he responded, “Where else can you get Icelandic honey?”  How true! 

            Langstroth hives are used most often but a typical Norwegian hive that is square is also in use.  Egill uses polystyrene hives with plasti-cell foundation that he coats with beeswax.  The polystyrene hives were first marketed in Sweden in the 1990’s and were called Bee Max hives.   All of the hives are wrapped with a belt-like strap, enabling the beekeeper to lift them easily or to unbuckle the ‘belt’ and inspect them.  Carnica queens have been brought in from Sweden.  Egill has found that they are much more calm and ‘relaxed.’  In fact, in his own words, Egill states, “the Swedes are very good at non-aggressive bees.”  He even feels that they may have been mixed or crossed up a little bit with Buckfast drones as they are about 10% yellow in color. The malifera-malifera are a bit too aggressive for him.  The cost for a queen is 2,719 ISK ($39 US dollars).  The cost of a package of bees is 20,024 ISK ($286 US dollars) and the cost of transportation from Sweden is 1,300 ISK ($19 US dollars.) 

 Do they have a problem with swarming in Iceland?  Interestingly enough, they took their first swarm in a half-century last summer.  About fifty years ago, an Austrian lady had brought bee hives from Austria and had bees for a couple of years until authorities banned it.  “It was too dangerous,” they said.  So, for the last fifty years there have been no swarms in Iceland and the country was totally unprepared for the swarm that issued a year ago.  The community was totally hysterical when they saw this first swarm that had been seen in fifty years.  They were positive that they were ‘killer bees’ and the media went wild with the story.  Part of the beekeeping organization’s mission now is to convince everyone that bees are not unusually aggressive and, in fact, are beneficial to the gardens and to the community. 

            Although beekeeping in Iceland is still in its infancy, we were curious to know if they had marketed any value-added products to their honey line.  There are NO candles, pollen, propolis, skin care products, even comb honey offered.  This surely would be a  fine addition because of the salability of these products.  They, at one time, did sell the wax back to Sweden but do so no more because the cost of sending the wax is too high.  With that in mind, it would seem that candles would be the next step.

            We came away from Iceland with a profound sense of awe at the beekeeping management techniques that are in use in a land with some innate weather problems.  Despite the fact that extended daylight in the summertime enables the bees to work twenty-hour days, the winters are hostile with winds that stress even the strongest colonies.  Trial and error with wintering techniques will enable the beekeepers to be more consistently successful in bringing the bees through the winter and giving them a ‘head-start’ on the spring brood rearing and honey flow.  Surely there is no problem with marketing such a fine product as pure Icelandic honey.  It commands a high price and there are many consumers willing to pay for a product that is as pure and wholesome as the country itself. 

 

Charles and Karen Lorence Wisconsin USA

           

 

 

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