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Beekeeping in Iceland

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 Žorsteinn, 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 Žorsteinn 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 Žorsteinns house and he came out to greet us, it was still raining, but we followed him to the back of his house. Žorsteinn 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. Žorsteinn 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. Žorsteinn and his wife have lived here for 40 years on the shores of lake Ellišįvatn. 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.

Žorssteinn 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 Žorsteinn 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.

Žorsteinn 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 Žorsteinn 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.