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By Ole Hertz, Denmark
This project started in 1998 as an investigation into the possibility of keeping honeybees in South Greenland, and continued for four years. There were two reasons why the project was needed: to create new income-generating activities among the poorest sheep farmers; and to create new genetic reserves of Black bees.
Black bees in Denmark threatened
The Black bee [itals]Apis mellifera mellifera[end] has been protected by law on the Island of Laesø. The Island was the only place remaining in Denmark with this race of honeybees. However, as described in [itals]BfDJ[end] 74, the Danish Government has spoiled that protection by changing the law so that other races of bees are now permitted on Laesø Island. This is against what Denmark had signed for at the Rio Conference in 1992 and against advice from scientists. Since the law of bee protection was introduced for Laesø there had always been a few local beekeepers trying to spoil the protective work, and there was interest to establish a more secure genetic reserve.
South Greenland was a potential location for this new genetic reserve if beekeeping was possible there, and if local people were interested. A minimum of 200 colonies are needed to create an effective reserve. There are no indigenous honeybees or solitary bees in Greenland, although two species of bumblebees are present. This means that no other races of honeybees could mix with the Black bees, and since bumblebees and honeybees have no diseases or parasites in common, there was no risk of introducing new pathogens for the indigenous bees. Honeybees would not be able to survive and spread out of control in Greenland in the same way as rabbits or sparrows did when introduced to Australia, so it should not be irresponsible to try beekeeping in Greenland. The Black bees belong to a unique race of honeybees, with special genetic abilities, which must be protected as part of nature’s diversity, and to be able to breed from them in the future.
Conditions for beekeeping
Most people associate Greenland with snow and ice, but that is not the whole story. Greenland is so large that if it were placed at the top of Europe, it would stretch from Norway to North Africa. The southern part of Greenland is on the same latitude as Oslo and Stockholm. The climate in South Greenland is arctic, but it can be temperate near to some of the fjords. This means that the mean temperature for the warmest month is above +10°C, with some days more than +20°C. The mean temperature for the coldest month is -3°C. The winter temperature is no problem for bees. In Finland, for example, there is beekeeping north of the polar circle where the winter temperature can be -30 to -40°C, and there is beekeeping in Alaska and Siberia. The critical point is whether the temperature during the summer months is high enough for the bees to fly.
In South Greenland the land around the deep fjords seems to be excellent for beekeeping, but the archipelago along the outer coast is not so good. That is due to both its climate and vegetation. The vegetation inland can be forest of hairy white birch and northern willow, with most trees 4-5 m high. There is a gradual transition from forest through copse to heath when moving from inland to the outer coast.
Northern willow is an especially good nectar producer and it is the main bee plant in the inner areas. Other plants of interest for beekeeping are purple saxifrage, broad-leafed willow-herb, angelica, common harebell, lacerate dandelion and arctic thyme. In total there are 500 species of plants in Greenland. It seems that the arctic plants produce more nectar compared with temperate plants, maybe because they are competing for the pollinating insects. Climate and vegetation are no problem for beekeeping, but areas with too many sheep can be so heavily grassed that few flowering plants remain.
The peoples’ interest
The main income in Greenland comes from fisheries and the fishing industry. However, in South Greenland 60 households make a living from sheep farming, potato and sugar beet growing. Some of these families have a very low surplus of money, and are in need of supplementary income. Beekeeping has been tried before: in 1951 six colonies were given as a gift from Danish beekeepers to Greenland farmers. Four colonies survived for three years but two died in the first winter because they were not fed.
Our project started by collecting experiences of ‘arctic beekeeping’ from beekeepers in northern Finland. Twenty nuclei of bees were made in Laesø, each with about 1.5 kg bees. These were sent in small net boxes on a pallet by air to Greenland, where all the equipment had already arrived by ship and had been collected by Greenland project participants. In the sheep farming village Qasiarsuq, the bees were transferred to hives and fed. After combs had been built, the bees were distributed to apiaries in the mountains and along the coast in eight different places. The first summer was very bad with a lot of rain and wind, but it was possible to harvest some honey and 18 colonies were prepared for the winter, each fed with 20 kg sugar.
Nine colonies survived. The next spring the weather was even worse and the bees had to wait nine months before they could breed again. The first years gave the experience that it was essential that the colonies were strong before the winter. The next winters were also bad with too many dead colonies, but during the project period it was found that a beekeeper had illegally imported queens from the USA to Laesø, and introduced the tracheal mite [itals]Acarapis[end] spp. This could be the reason for the poor winter survival rate both in Laesø and Greenland. We had to treat against the mites by biological means and later imported ten extra nuclei of bees.
A three-day workshop took place in Upernaviarsuk Farming Research Station and smaller meetings were held in schools. A beekeeping handbook was translated to Greenlandic. During the sheep farmers’ annual meetings, small exhibitions were arranged showing wax and honey products prepared by Greenland beekeepers. It was very important for the success of the project that the local people were interested to participate. Usually most people in Greenland are afraid of all insects - even flies, but bees turned out not to be a problem. Over 20 people wanted to become beekeepers.
Unfortunately due to the first years of heavy winter loss in both Laesø and Greenland, it was difficult to produce enough new colonies for all those interested to start beekeeping, but we hope to solve that in the future.
Slowly we learned where the optimum places for bees were to be found. There is no doubt that the inner fjord areas are best if not crowded with too many sheep. Special arrangements had to be made to secure the hives against the very strong storms coming from inland ice from time to time. The solution was to site the apiaries in the most protected places and to secure the hives on pallets covered by heavy stones. This arrangement also creates an air space underneath the hives, which is an advantage if the hives are covered in snow during the winter.
We also tried breeding queens and getting them to mate with drones. It was possible. The pollinatory effect of the honeybee introduction should have been measured during the project, but it was not possible to see any distinct sign because of the enormous area of blooming vegetation. The bees just fly out and disappear until they return with their heavy loads.
Beekeeping is an income-generating activity
There are now 19 colonies of Black bees in South Greenland. Three sheep farming households are involved in beekeeping and a research apiary has been established in the Narsarsuaq Arboretum which has 120,000 trees from around the world. This apiary now belongs to the Consultants for Agriculture and Sheep Farming and our plan is that it will produce colonies for new beekeepers. The queens would come by post from Laesø. During the last three winters there have been no winter losses except one colony. In the autumn it was taken by a flooded river and found later by a fisherman, several kilometres away. When he opened the box a lot of bees flew out and he realised what it was. He called the beekeeper who took the colony home, but it did not survive the winter.
The best hives situated among willow herb have each produced 70-80 kg of honey. In the beginning the honey was sold in 40g glass jars at a price of UK£4 each. Now because of greater production, the honey is sold at a price of UK£4-5 for 120g jar. There are no problems in selling the very tasty and liquid honey. Income from beekeeping is now the main source for two sheep farming households. In the same period that this project was running, an association of beekeepers in Iceland was created with about 16 members, and it has been possible to exchange experiences with them.
The project has been supported financially by the Velux Foundation, The South Greenland Municipalities, The Gene Resource Council and the Greenland Home Rule Government.
The two best colonies in Nasutit Qoqua Valley
Honey extraction in Kiattut
Agnethe Paviassen tapping honey
Participants in the beekeeping workshop in Upernaviarsuk 2000
Transport boxes for the bees
© Ole Hertz
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Bees for Development Journal #76