Iceland… Land of Fire and Ice… and Honey!!! (2007)
Charles and Karen Lorence
From American Bee Journal vol. 146 no. 11 november 2006
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