An animated Gillis mimicked shaking a small wooden crate with mesh sides. She then removed a can that held food for the journey from Oregon and a tiny container holding the queen. She tipped the crate upside-down and the bees tumbled into the hive, more than likely unhappy with their welcome to Juneau. Only one bee stung her then. The other two stings came later.
“They’re like any other animal; you usually get stung for doing something stupid,” she said.
Gillis is unusual in Southeast. Where the Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association boasts 150 members and the Interior Alaska Beekeepers Association counted about 200 members in 2010, there is no major organization promoting beekeeping in Southeast Alaska.
Local honey still manages to find its way to farmers’ markets, however, thanks to the efforts of people like Gillis, who start their hives anew each spring.
Gillis and her bees seem to be getting along just fine. She is able to open the hives without incident and watches the bees buzz around the hives and listens to them hum inside.
Most beekeepers start their hives new each spring with loads of bees brought from the Lower 48. While bees can survive Alaska’s winter in the wild, keeping a domestic hive alive can take a lot of expensive work - hence Gillis‘ box of mailed bees.
Gillis‘ two hives house two separate colonies of bees, both Carniolan honey bees, each with their own queen. The hives perch on a platform between two trees a back yard shared by chickens, ducks, rabbits and a cat.
“I like the concept of them,” she said. “They’re self-sustaining really . and who doesn’t love the idea of having honey.”
The Interior Alaska Beekeepers Association estimated in 2010 that there were just 750 domestic bee colonies in Alaska, producing about $850,000 in honey sold at local marketplaces. That number appears to be on the rise, spurred by a trend toward local agriculture and sustainability.
The most common participants in that trend are people like Gillis. Every creature she keeps at her home serves a purpose, she said: Chickens lay eggs and eat insects in the garden, rabbits provide manure for compost and fiber for spinning yarn, the cat takes care of the mice and provides companionship. The bees, Gillis said, play a huge role in not only her backyard ecosystem, but on a larger scale.
“They’re pollinators, so they’re important to ecology,” Gillis said.
Bees have been in the news for their declining populations, but they are vital to agriculture and the ecosystem at large, Gillis said. She discussed colony collapse disorder, which happens when a hive’s worker bees abruptly disappear. (It hasn’t been seen yet in Alaska.)
There seems to be no definitive cause, she said, but some theorize it has to do with bees foraging only one type of pollen, common with bees taken to large monoculture fields, like almond trees in California.
Gillis plans to mostly leave her bees alone and let them forage what they will, supplementing with sugar water only when necessary. The bees returned to the hive during a Tuesday afternoon interview, pollen coating their hind legs and abdomen.