“Hold your ear next to the beehive,” says Torbjörn Andersen as we arrive at his beeyard, hidden behind the trees just outside the Skaftholt farm in south Iceland. “You can hear them buzzing. It tells me they’re okay.” Unlike me, Torbjörn is not afraid of the bees – he knows how to soothe them, senses when they’re aggressive and can spot the queen bee immediately. Despite devoting his professional career to medicine and healthcare, it’s here at the hives that he feels most at home. “In my next life, I’ll be a dairy farmer,” he jokes and invites us for an impromptu honey tasting.
When I was 13-years old, my father came home one day and asked, “Would you like to visit a beekeeper? He has a swarm for sale.” I was always interested in ants and insects, so, of course, I jumped at the opportunity. The beekeeper gave me a book on beekeeping in Norway – the so-called “beekeeper’s Bible” – to study, and I’ve read it cover to cover many times. Ever since bees have been a part of my life.
When you are a teenager, most guys start running after girls, but I started beekeeping instead. I guess I was a very shy teenager. The bees I had in Norway were so ferocious that I got stung so much that I developed an allergy to bee venom. But I couldn’t give up beekeeping, so I went through five years of a so-called desensitisation treatment.
Icelandic liquid gold
Iceland is the last country on Earth that honeybees colonised. The climate here is on the verge of what is possible for them. I used to say that it’s as close to being impossible as you can imagine without being impossible.
If you’re a beekeeper in Norway, you are a small fish in a big pond. But here in Iceland, you all of a sudden, are a big fish in the small pond – there are maybe 100 active beekeepers.
I have 12 colonies of bees, with about 40,000 bees in each colony. I have been trying to increase the numbers, but it’s incredibly challenging because of the weather.
We are not allowed to import bees unless they have certification from a veterinarian confirming that they are disease-free. The bees in the Åland Islands in Finland don’t have diseases, unlike those in the rest of Europe and the Americas, so that’s one option. But I don’t want to buy colonies from Åland; I want to be sustainable. That’s the fun part! I want to breed queens and bees from the colonies that have survived the winters so that in a few generations, they’ll quickly adapt to new situations.
The fact that we don’t have to deal with diseases, such as the Varroa mite, certainly makes beekeeping here much easier. The Varroa mite lives on the bees and sucks their blood out, weakening their bodies and making them more susceptible to other viral infections and diseases. It usually kills a colony over a few years if it’s not treated with medication. One of the good things about our bees is that we don’t need to treat them with any kind of medicine. All the medicine you use in beekeeping can end up in the honey. It’s safe to say Icelandic honey is very clean from pollutants and drugs.
What surprises you when you start beekeeping here is the variety of vegetation in the heath. The pollinators need something in their radius that flowers throughout the summer, so there is no stop in nectar or pollen flow. In most places in Iceland, there are various flowers through the seasons – from the end of March until the end of September or even into October – willow, red and white clover, geranium, arctic thyme, angelica and dandelion, to name a few. Iceland has this kind of wilderness, but you don’t notice it until you start looking into it and following what the bees are doing.
The queen bee is dedicated to her role from the moment she hatches. She needs to be fed with special care so that the larva will develop into a queen. Every bee colony has only one queen, and she’s like the ovaries of this organism, producing all the female hormones that the organism needs. She can lay more than 1000 eggs in a day. That’s a hell of a job to be a queen bee.
The queen bee will live for two to three years, while a worker bee’s lifespan is five to six weeks during the summer. At the end of the season, I insulate my polystyrene beehives with double bubble foil. The winter bees will stay inside the hive for about five months, clustering closely together, and they will live until May. Then, the queen will start laying eggs again, and the colony will begin producing new bees.
On the first day of summer, in April, when the willow starts to bud, the bees are all awake and ready to work immediately. It’s just beautiful.
Honey has been used throughout the ages as a medicine. It has antibacterial properties because of all the sugar concentration that kills the bacteria – I have sometimes used it on patients for wound infections, for example. But there are other vitamins and minerals in honey – you can use it for a sore throat, when you have a cold, to help you calm and relax for sleeping, and with herbal teas to enhance their effects.
When you have a sore throat, take half a spoon three times a day. It calms down the mucous membranes and helps with your cough. For me, honey is medicine. My regular use is half a teaspoon a day. I love taking it with my yoghurt in the morning.
This year, I extracted almost 90 litres of honey. I use a honey extractor, a centrifugal machine into which you place honey frames; it spins at a fast speed, and the honey comes out of the honeycombs. It’s a lot of work, but time is relative when you’re doing something you love.
Blueberry picking is another hobby that I take really seriously. Every autumn, I take a few weekends off to pick wild blueberries. I need a full fridge of frozen blueberries to survive the winter, just like the bees need a full box of sugar. They would surely survive from their own honey if I didn’t take any out. But we have a deal – they give me some honey, and in return, they get to live in this country.
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