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.
Next post: The bumblebees of Iceland!