Finally, Iceland

In late August, I returned to Canada after a few days in Iceland. I’ve wanted to travel there ever since I was a kid and I quit being a kid decades ago. So, it was about time that I’d made my pilgrimage. Growing up on a farm where bees were kept, I figured I’d be a beekeeper. Maybe in Iceland. I was probably 12 years old when I sent a letter to the Iceland Embassy asking if anyone kept honey bees in their country. The reply was a terse “No, it is not possible,” though the consular sent a small book listing flowers growing in his country. My naive reaction was “No beekeepers in Iceland! I can be the first!” A more seasoned response would have been, “Oh, it sounds like it’s not possible.”

I never gave it a try. Instead of Iceland, I moved to western Canada to make a life of bees. Nevertheless, the idea of Iceland tugged me from time to time. Finally, after years of wondering about the bees of Iceland, I finally did a ‘bucket list’ journey to resolve my curiosity. It was a wonderful visit, taking in some of the geophysical attractions – volcanoes, geysers, the exposed mid-oceanic rift, as well as the best of geology and geography – waterfalls, basalt columns, glaciers, black sand beaches, and the quaint fishing village that became the wealthy national capital, Reykjavik.

But it was bees that I really wanted to see.  As it is for beekeepers everywhere, the vagaries of climate are Iceland’s principal impediment to successful beekeeping. This summer – 2018 – was repeatedly described to me as “the worst in a hundred years” and indeed, the Icelandic meteorologists have claimed that the last miserable summer which was worst than the present miserable summer was over a hundred years ago. There was almost no sunshine in June, July, and August, temperatures were cool (highs around 12C / 54F), and drizzle was almost daily.  Iceland Magazine ran a story, “So far the summer of 2018 is the worst on record in Reykjavík” which understates the gloom.

Can honey bees make honey in a summer such as Iceland had in 2018?

No. As it turns out, there are a handful of tough Vikings keeping bees in Iceland. The few whom I spoke with won’t be extracting anything at all in 2018. Vintage 2018 Hunang (as honey is called in Iceland) won’t exist. Instead, Iceland’s beekeepers will have to feed their colonies to keep them alive.

In the best of summers, a colony might collect 30 kg but 20kg (45 pounds) would be more typical. In a normal year, it takes 45 kg of sugar/honey stores for a colony to survive Iceland’s long winter. Consequently, on their own, honey bees would not survive. Here in Alberta, on the other hand, honey bees gather an average 70 kg and consume 40 – in a sheltered location, a feral honey bee colony could survive and reproduce in Alberta. But not in Iceland.

The main nectar sources in Iceland are willow, dandelion, and a few wildflowers. Some years, most of the honey is actually honeydew, collected from aphids sucking birch trees. Without flying weather and strong sunshine, honey dew wasn’t produced this year. Well, I suppose Iceland’s beekeepers are well aware of what beekeepers everywhere know: Next year will be the big crop.

Later, I’ll post about one bee that is successful in Iceland – the bumblebee. Meanwhile, here are a few pictures from the trip. I took my two youngest kids and my sister, Jane, flew up from San Diego to join us.

Volcanic black sands at Iceland’s southernmost point.

My sister and I at Skógafoss, the Skóga River Falls.

Here I am with “The Nameless Bureaucrat” – a statue of the unsung (usually despised) paper-shufflers of the world. In Reykjavik




My my sister and two of my kids on the rainbow road in Reykjavik

This building is the Harpa, Reykjavik’s beautiful $250 million-dollar theatre.

My 16-year-old took off for a day and hiked up this mountain north of Reykjavik.

My daughter, inspecting one of the stars of the Game of Thrones series.

The tallest geyser we saw was Strokkur which erupts every five minutes or so and is close in height to Old Faithful at Yellowstone

Hot springs and mud pots. — in Hruni, Arnessysla, Iceland.

The mid-Atlantic rift, the tectonic divide between North America and Europe. We are standing in North America, but that ridge in the distance is Europe.

Most agriculture is sheep and horse ranching, hay and pastures, some dairy cows, and large ranges for grazing. I saw one huge field of cabbage. Geothermally heated greenhouses supply tomatoes and bananas. (Iceland has Europe’s largest banana plantation – 15 plants under glass..)

Sheep ranch, nestled nicely between a glacier and waterfalls. The glacier sits atop the volcano that became known as Eyjafjallajökull. When it erupted in April 2010, it stopped all air traffic in most of Europe for a week. We were supposed to fly from Hungary to Canada during the eruption, so we were stuck in Hungary. Our nemesis was dormant when we finally met this summer!

If you spot the wheelchair, you’ll see me. If you see me, you’ll see my 11-year-old daughter – she’s pushing me through the gravel so I can get closer to the waterfalls! — in Akurey, Rangarvallasysla, Iceland.

You’ve probably noticed that the countryside photos show no alfalfa or sweet clover. Farmers use local grasses for their hay crops. There are some yellow buttercup-ish flowers in the foreground of this picture, but there’s not much here for honey bees.


Here we are at Gullfoss. The water is from a nearby glacier – we were at a higher elevation and near the glacier so it was pretty chilly.

Next post: The bumblebees of Iceland!

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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11 Responses to Finally, Iceland

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the tour! My son spent a couple of days there on a layover last year and when i quizzed him he told me the prices were pretty intimidating. Maybe I’ll just read a saga instead of going. – Tony

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Although prices are high, it may be worth the trip – depending on your interests. Expensive, chilly, and while we were there this summer, it drizzled half the time. But the landscape is amazing and it is safe, clean, and historically interesting.

      To cut costs, we stayed just six days. We rented an apartment in the downtown. It was (very) large and included a fully-equipped kitchen. You are allowed to import up to 3 kilos (seven pounds) of food per person, so we did. Coffee, peanut butter, pasta noodles, sauces, etc. We had lunch out, at a rate of about $20/person for a simple meal (sandwich and salad and water) and ate almost all other meals at the apartment. Large grocery stores have (somewhat) reasonable prices. Reykjavik is small, so covering the downtown on foot is easy (Though my wheelchair was challenging – the old downtown, where we stayed, is not easily accessible.) Instead of renting a car for our short stay, we bought tours to explore the country in a van with a guide. That was cheaper than renting a car, by the way. When my 16-year-old headed off by himself to climb a mountain, public transport with one bus transfer got him there.


  2. valbjerke says:

    Awesome you finally made it there! My bucket list – Norway – my great grandparents came from there to Minnesota, then some of their children settled in Alberta (Onoway/Heatherdown area).
    Maybe one day 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      It was pretty nice. Almost felt like coming home as I’d read so much about Iceland over the years. The only other Scandinavian country which I have visited is Denmark. This quite different – both culturally and scenically. But it may be closer to Norway in those ways. Everyone says Norway is beautiful – hope you visit there soon and meet lots of Jørgens, Bjørns, Ingeborgs, and Berits!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful photos Ron. Awesome adventure for you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      It was great. I wish my wife had joined us, but she stayed in Canada to work (and watch the dog). She had already spent her month of vacation in central Europe (with the kids), visiting her parents while I stayed home! By the way, it’s not hard to take beautiful pictures in Iceland – you just close your eyes and point your camera anywhere and bingo, beautiful photos!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Emily Scott says:

    I loved Iceland and want to go back sometime. My friend Emma has written about her visit there where she met up with a kind local beekeeper who gave her some of that very precious Icelandic honey:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Susan Rudnicki says:

    Lovely photos! I wondered about the ponies—I didn’t watch Game of Thrones (no TV)
    I think this—“A more seasoned response would have been, “Oh, it sounds like it’s not possible.” might be really “A more cynical response…” Like the ever-enthusiastic nature of dogs, children’s enthusiasm has not been worn down yet in the early years

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi, Susan! I didn’t watch GoT, either, but I did watch an hour-long recap. Not really my thing. The tour was made child-friendly because my daughter was there. I suspect that the pony visit was just for her because the guide said “We don’t usually stop at a horse farm, but let’s do it today.” The horses are small, even full-grown, so the director used angle shots and other tricks to make them look bigger.


  6. Pingback: Bees on Ice | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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