From Iceland — In The Eye Of The Swarm: The Beekeepers Of Iceland

In The Eye Of The Swarm: The Beekeepers Of Iceland

Published August 19, 2015

In The Eye Of The Swarm: The Beekeepers Of Iceland
Sam Wright Fairbanks
Photo by
Anna Domnick

The paved road transitions to dirt just south of Mosfellsbær, but Torbjørn’s new electric car handles the change smoothly. “I have two hives out here at Hafravatn,” he says, “and six more in the south. The southwest is the best region in Iceland for beekeeping.” I trust he knows his stuff: Torbjørn Andersen took up beekeeping as a hobby when he was just fourteen years old in Bergen, Norway, and has been at it full time since 1997.

“The main job of a beekeeper in summer,” he says, “is to check the hives every seven to ten days to see how they’re developing.” From this basic principle, the beekeeper’s task is to facilitate said development in every way possible—to augment the hives with additional compartments, or to split them in the summer to prevent swarming.

“The hive becomes too congested, with too many larvae,” he says. “Bees can sense when the hive will become overpopulated, and they’ll begin to make new queens.” Queen bees have the same genetics as the female workers, but are fed a different diet in the larval stage. “The old queen will leave with the swarm—10,000 bees in a number of minutes.” A mass migration of bees, whose goal is to create a new hive from scratch. “You have to control swarming, or you could lose them all,” Torbjørn says. “Most every swarm, if left to its own devices in Iceland, would fail.”

Enter the hive

It’s actually hard to believe that a new hive could be successful anywhere in nature, given how specific their requirements are. When scouting for a home, bees look for a hollowed tree with a south-facing opening of 10 cm2 that sits three to four metres above the ground, which then leads to a cavity with a volume of around 40 litres. “In the wild, under the best conditions,” Torbjørn says, “30-40% of swarms will succeed.”

We pull up to a modern cabin that couldn’t be more than two rooms, set behind a patch of thin pines and tea-leafed willow. From there, it is a short walk to the hive. It can be heard well before it’s seen—the distinct hum that would, under most other circumstances, have sent me in the opposite direction.

The hive structure itself is rather innocuous: little more than wooden boxes set at ground level and stacked to around the height of a bedside table. Called a Langsroth hive, it’s meant to replicate the bees’ ideal natural habitat. At the bottom there is a minute slit where a haze of worker bees zip in and out, each moving with that kind of randomness that belies an underlying order. I try not to stand too close (while also trying to look like I’m not trying to not stand too close).

“The hive behaves like a single organism controlled by pheromones,” Torbjørn says. “The temperature is 35ºC in the brood [the beeswax structure where the queen bee lays eggs].” When you open the hive, you disturb this complex system— so it’s best to do so quickly.

Torbjørn removes the lid from the top of the hive, and peels back a burlap cloth draped over the opening to the combs inside to reveal a complex hexagonal wax network teeming with activity and plugged with honey. He offers me a sample, which I take, while eyeing workers cautiously. Its taste is incredible—deliciously sweet and powerfully floral. I’ve never had anything like it; I realise firsthand the appeal of keeping beekeeping local.

The fight for self-sufficiency 

This current experiment is not Iceland’s first foray into beekeeping. There were attempts in the 1940s and 1960s to introduce self-sustaining hives to Iceland, both of which were ultimately unsuccessful. The newest beekeeping venture was started by Egill Rafn Sigurgeirsson, who brought the first five hives from Sweden back in 1998. Since then, the total number of hives in Iceland has grown to 250, each with up to 50,000 worker bees, 100 drones (males), and one Queen.

The goal now, as it has been in the past, is for the Icelandic hives to become self-sufficient—to not rely upon yearly imports from the Åland Islands, from Sweden, or elsewhere.

 So while elsewhere the looming threat climate change spells doom for agriculture and apiculture alike, a slight rise in summer averages would do wonders here in Iceland—at least for the bees.

“Self-sufficiency would mean a maximum loss of 20-30% [of the hive’s population] in winter,” Torbjørn says. “Long winters are the main problem in Iceland. Last winter was rough.” Long Icelandic winters, along with low median temperatures in the summer, disrupt the seasonal cycles of hive growth, development, and reproduction.

“The hive is pretty good at keeping its temperature up in winter, but the queen only mates once,” Torbjørn says. “She mates in the air at an optimal temperature of 18-20ºC.” This summer the temperature was in the low end of this range during only two days, and briefly at that. Further, summer came late this year, after a particularly rough winter. Swarm season in more temperate climates comes in May or June—but in Iceland it’s more like August.

It’s a game of numbers—can summer gains counterbalance winter losses? “We just need one or two degrees more,” chuckles Torbjørn. “That would be perfect.” So while elsewhere the looming threat of climate change spells doom for agriculture and apiculture alike, a slight rise in summer averages would do wonders here in Iceland—at least for the bees.

Iceland’s potential

Though the climate presents a challenge to bees and beekeepers alike, Iceland has got a lot going for it as well. First, the bees in Iceland are free of disease—both due to their non-native species status, as well their progenitors originating from areas without mites, foulbrood, viruses, etc. Self-sufficiency would help assure that the bees continAD_The Reykjavík Grapevine_Icelandic Beekeeping 04ue to be free of disease (for which the only remedy would be to destroy the infected hive).

Torbjørn points out that Iceland’s diverse flora serve the bees as well. “If you take a closer look down into a square meter of vegetation, you will discover such a richness in plants, trees, moss and flowers.” Each type of plant provides different kinds of nectars and pollens. “There are many important pollen plants found in Iceland: wild heather, willow, dandelion, arctic angelica, white clover, and millefolium,” he says, to name a few.

Further, these plants bloom at various periods throughout the summer, providing bees with a seamless, long-lasting source of nourishment. “We don’t have the vast monoculture crops that are found in so many places,” Torbjørn says. “Diseases and modern farming, monoculture and pesticides, are the two main reasons for bee death.”

Propolis tasting

After checking the status of his second hive, Torbjørn takes me to visit the farm of another Icelandic beekeeper, Tomás Ponzi, who shares Torbjørn’s sentiments about hive-as-organism (or what entomologists call a “superorganism”.) “The honeycomb is like the skeleton,” he says, “the brood is a womb, the honey is energy stores…”

Tomás is having a successful summer with his bees. He made a split two weeks prior, and the second hive has since tripled in size. One of the hives is well over a metre in height and is rampant with worker activity

Tomás removes the top to check the hive, and Torbjørn offers me a sample of propolis stuck to the underside of the cover. It’s a reddish-brown resin collected by the bees from budding plants. “It has strong antibacterial effects,” he says. “Bees line their hives with it as protection from microbes.” It’s extremely sticky, and tastes strongly of herbs.

It’s just one of the many products one can collect from this superorganism. Honey and beeswax in all their uses, this propolis stuff, out of which you can make a tincture (“With something strong, like vodka,” Torbjørn says). And those are just some of the many uses for bees.

As we stand there, attempting to clear excess propolis from our teeth, Tomás tells me that beekeeping has the potential to become big business in Iceland. “We had a man from New York City come here,” says Tomás. “He had a great business plan. There are many corporations that improve their image by putting beehives on the roof.” Rooftop beekeeping has developed into a sort of trend for celebrities who wish to appear environmentally conscious.

“I may do it,” says Tomás, with a sardonic smile. “All of my hives will read ‘Alcoa’.”


No interns were harmed during the making of this article, although they were at one point covered in bees.

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