By Christina Whiting
The first time Linda Gorman looked in a beehive, she was smitten.
“I was captivated by the smell of honey and the thousands of faces looking up at me,” she said.
Despite being allergic to honeybee stings, Gorman was eager to learn all she could about keeping bees.
“I was fascinated to discover that in the Lower 48, honeybees pollinate one third of our food,” she said. “They pollinate 100 percent of almond crops and 90 percent of apple, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, blueberry and onion crops.”
Three years after her first glimpse into a beehive, Gorman was given a hive. She began the process of learning to keep bees, from reading everything she could to talking to local beekeepers.
That winter, she built five hives and when her hives were ready, she ordered five packages of honeybees from Alaska Wildflower Honey, Alaska’s largest bee distributor who imports bees from northern California.
Gorman received her bees, five packages for five hives.
“I was in awe of what I saw and heard coming from those little shipping crates,” she said.
What she heard and saw were packages that each contained 15,000 worker bees and one queen bee.
Easily distinguished by their shape and the colored marking that the producer makes on their back with a special marker, Gorman soon experienced for herself the phenomena that a queen bee can lay up to 1,000 eggs a day, laying larvae that hatches after 30 days.
“A queen bee can live two to three years if she survives the winter,” she said. “While the lifespan of a worker bee is just 30 to 45 days.”
By the end of her first summer, Gorman had roughly 45,000 to 80,000 bees per hive and she was determined to keep learning and producing successful hives.
Over the years, at her busiest, Gorman had eight hives. Today she is content to work just two and enlists the help of apprentice Emmet Meyer.
Most mornings, Gorman can be found standing on the deck of her house with a cup of coffee in hand, watching the queen bee send scout bees out as soon as the sun hits the hive.
“I can see the scouts as they look for large sources of pollen or nectar,” Gorman said. “It might be the orchards above or below me, dandelions, wildflowers, spruce trees or even pushki.”
Once the scouts locate pollen or nectar, they return to the hive and the foraging bees go out to collect and bring the pollen and nectar back to the hive. And this is where the magic of thousands of honeybees producing honey takes places.
The nurse bees feed the pollen to the larva and the worker bees eat the honey. The bees are on a frame, which holds the comb they draw out from the wax they make on their abdomen, creating a hexagon shape that they fill with pollen, brood and honey.
“Foraging bees can fly one to three miles from the hive,” Gorman said. “They will visit five million flowers to produce a single pint of honey and a worker bee will produce just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during its short lifetime.”
Gorman has had surgery on both shoulders due to carrying the heavy hives. An empty hive can weigh 20 pounds and a hive full of honey can weigh up to 100 pounds. Over the years, Gorman has learned how to manage the hives without reinjuring her shoulders.
Honeybees are not indigenous to Alaska because the cooler weather does not support them. In Homer, beekeeping season runs from April through September. In order to survive the winter, honeybees need to be in temperature of about 37 degrees.
“At 40 degrees or lower, honeybees will not leave the hive to eat,” Gorman said. “They need to be fed sugar water and kept warm.”
One goal that Gorman and other local beekeepers have is to find a local climate-controlled space where bees could be wintered over.
During her early years of beekeeping, Gorman distributed her 100 percent wildflower honey at the Homer Farmer’s Market where she would quickly sell out. Today, she operates Homer Girls Honey and supplies honey to a long list of returning customers, as well as to Anchor Point Health food store.
In addition to harvesting and selling honey, Gorman also collects and freezes pollen, one of just a few people in Alaska to do so, which she eats raw to manage her allergies.
Gorman will talk bees to anyone who will listen. She regularly hosts meetings and classes at her home and is working to coordinate End of the Road Beekeepers, with a goal of gathering the more than 40 Homer and Anchor Point beekeepers into a group of mutual sharing.
“We can all learn from one another,” she said. “Every beekeeper needs a mentor.”
One of Gorman’s greatest challenges is advocating for the use of chemical-free products to kill weeds.
“Every time someone in Homer uses a chemical product to kill weeds, they are potentially killing bees,” she said. “If a bee lands where someone has sprayed or lands on a genetically-modified plant of flower, it will die.”
She also works hard to educate people on the differences between bees, wasps and hornets.
“A honeybee might come and check you out because it’s curious, but it would rarely sting you unless you’re messing in its hive,” she said. “A hornet or wasp will sting you just because it can.”
While some people view bees as a nuisance, and something to be swatted at, others, like Gorman, value their complex social structure, their beauty and the important role they play.
After all these years of keeping bees, Linda Gorman is still motivated by the pure, sweet smell of honey and the thousands of faces looking up at her every time she attends to her hives.
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