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Story Last modified at 10:50 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gentle demeanor translates to genial bees

Alaska Star


Mike Page of Eagle River assists Joe Dunham with his honey business, checking on the condition of the bees in their hives. Page wears a bee suit to protect him from potential bee stings.


Dunham smokes a cigar while checking on the bees in his hives in Palmer. The smoke, puffed every once in a while, keeps the bees calm, Dunham said, helping him avoid wearing a bee suit. Still, he said he gets several stings nearly every time he checks on his bees.


Bees gather pollen from one of the first flowers of the season: dandelions. Dunham said he likes dandelions because they help the bees prepare for the short honey season.


Worker bees clean the hives as new bees, or "newbies," are born. During this part of the bee season, the queens are laying eggs every several minutes, and thousands of new bees are being born.

Joe Dunham is extremely calm when surrounded by thousands of honeybees.

And because he is calm, the bees are happy, buzzing around his head almost lazily. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Chugiak resident and longtime beekeeper checks on his hives at a gravel pit in Palmer. He's wearing a T-shirt and puffing, occasionally, on a cigar, the smoke of which helps keep the bees in line if they begin to act aggressive. He moves between the hives deliberately and comfortably, and the bees, picking up on his easiness, respond in kind.

"Bees, like horses, like dogs, can sense fear," Dunham said. "They can sense somebody that's not comfortable around them. If you're slow and calm and assertive, they pick up on that."

It's early in the season, and the bees are feeding mostly on sugar syrup and dandelions, while the queens lay eggs, repeatedly, all day long. Dunham said early in the season, the queens lay between 500 to 1,000 eggs per day, which three weeks later result in "newbies" – or new bees – crawling out each day.

On this day, Dunham and Eagle River friend Mike Page are checking on the queens, to see if they are still active, alive and laying eggs. Page, from a hive across the field in the gravel pit, is fully protected. He's wearing a bee veil, which protects his face and body, and long gloves that reach almost to his elbows.

For some, this is a much more comfortable way to approach a hive, Dunham said. It just depends on your level of ease.

"I get stung all the time, three, four, five times a day," he said. "You have to almost accept that fact, and if you know it's going to happen you can keep calm."

Dunham has been an avid beekeeper for almost 15 years, and his honey business, Alaska Honey, Pollen and Comb, is marketed and sold across Alaska and in specialty shops across the country, although most of it goes to Alaska Wild Berry Products in Anchorage. He has entered his honey in the National Honey Show – a gathering of beekeepers from all the states and some other countries – and took first place for three years running in the Clear Water White category, which is the lightest category of honey. His honey is a light combination of mostly fireweed and clover, he said, giving it a distinctive Alaska flavor.

He is one of a healthy number of beekeepers in the Chugiak-Eagle River area who not only enjoy the health benefits of honey but the relationship with the bees as well.

The Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association has about 150 members, and meetings are held monthly in Eagle River.

"It is a great group of people who share an enthusiasm for beekeeping," Dunham said.

Jesse Victors, whose father Steve is president of the Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association, said beekeeping seems to be a growing activity for enthusiasts across the state, but especially in the Valley and Chugiak-Eagle River.

"I would say that interest has grown because of better management techniques," said Victors, whose family owns one of the largest honey operations in the state out of Big Lake, Alaska Wildflower Honey.

Victors said the Association helps budding beekeepers learn the best ways of raising and keeping bees, and also provides the tools and guidance for getting started.

"We supply packages of bees and beekeeping supplies," he added. "They're shipped up from California."

Honey aficionados call it the "perfect" food, not only because it lasts forever – Dunham said it has been found in Egyptian pyramids and 3,000 years later is still edible – but because it's healthful, too.

"Bee pollen is another product produced by the bees, which is considered a perfect food," he said of the scrapings of pollen that drops from foragers' legs into catchment trays as they travel into their hives. "The human body contains 22 basic elements such as enzymes, vitamins, hormones and amino acids to name a few. These must be renewed by nutrient intake daily. No one food contains all the essential elements except bee pollen."

But when it comes down to it, there is nothing like honey, straight from the comb.

"Undoubtedly, the absolute best way to eat honey is right straight out of the hive," he said. "I can lift a frame out of the hive and take a spoon and dig a spoonful right out while the bees go about their business. ... If you lift the same frame out of the hive a couple of days later, you won't even be able to tell where you took it. They go right to work and fix it up."

Alaska Honey, Pollen and Comb can be reached at 862-0316 or

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.