Working Bees the Norway-way
By John Berry
My wife Karen and I have been busting to visit our son Chris and his family in Norway for some time. So, with the easing of Covid restrictions, we escaped the New Zealand winter and set off for a six-week holiday in mid-July. Lucky for this beekeeper, Chris has some hives of his own and so – along with a few other contacts – I was able to experience beekeeping the Norway-way.
Chris has been living in Norway for over 10 years and has just moved to the family farm near Lillehammer in the Nordic country’s east. In the northern spring Chris bought 10 hives from a retiring local beekeeper. By the time we arrived the main honey flow of the year, wild raspberries, was about finished.
The gear for the hives is all beautifully made. The boxes are square and hold 10 frames, which are both deeper and shorter than a standard frame in New Zealand. The boxes are about 10% smaller by volume than our gear. The walls of the boxes were about 50mm thick, to provide greater insulation, and immaculately made with a mix of wooden and polystyrene gear. The frames were somewhere between a simplicity frame and a Hoffman frame and wired horizontally.
Into the Work
At the same time that we took the honey off (using bee escapes) we also stripped any honey from the brood nest, found the queen and dropped her into the bottom brood box under an excluder. This got the hives ready for the second crop of the season: heather.
To shift the hives up to the heather we blocked their entrances at about 5am (they have ventilated floors). In Norway, at around 60° north in latitude, the sun goes down late and it never gets truly dark in summer, but the bees don’t start flying until about 7am.
Norway is a land of small farms, forests and mountains. The view from the top of the road to the heather was spectacular and, with mist down below us, you could easily imagine trolls coming out from behind the rocks. Then it was down the other side through more forest and up another river valley, with only a very few farms until we got to an area of pine forest where the heather grows.
The trees were thin, probably over 60-years-old and widely spaced so there’s plenty of sunlight reaching through. The heather was just starting to flower as we placed the hives in early August. We unloaded the hives and gave them an extra three-quarter box before strapping them securely – bears very occasionally attack hives in the area!
Despite being stripped of honey the day before, shifted and supered, the bees were still quiet as lambs.
Back at base, the next job was to extract the raspberry honey in my son’s brand-new honey shed using an equally brand-new 15 frame radial extractor. I have always been told that radials are rough on the gear, so I was pretty sceptical, but this machine did a fantastic job with zero comb damage and some of the driest wets I have ever seen. We then strained the honey, mixed a bit of starter with it and packed into glass jars. Raspberry honey is sublime!
Norway’s Bees and Breeding Programmes
Barry Foster was kind enough to give me a contact for a bee scientist in Norway. Melissa Oddie is a professor from Canada and she is currently working on varroa tolerant bees. I spent a day with her and had a wonderful time talking about all sorts of things, as well as varroa. She took me for a fascinating visit with Terje and Anita Reinertsen.
Terje keeps bees near Oslo, Norway’s capital city with a population of over 600,000. He has not used any varroa treatment for 10 years and is currently moving away from honey production and into queen breeding. He has Buckfast bees (which were first bred in Devon, England in the first half of the 20th century) and a beautifully set up honey house with everything from an extractor to his own wax-foundation mill.
His English is pretty good, but he did have trouble understanding my accent. Nevertheless, we had some good conversations and a really enjoyable look through some of his hives. He told me that when he was younger he would really chase the honey flows and could get two raspberry crops by moving the bees higher up the hills, followed by heather in the mountains, then a late heather crop down by the coast.
Melissa is working with him and his bees as well as with other local beekeepers and their Carniolans. There is no doubt that they are having success breeding varroa tolerant bees, but just why those bees are tolerant is not completely clear at the moment. It appears to be something to do with the fact that they uncap brood cells that have varroa, but why this has an effect on the varroa’s life-cycle is still a bit unclear.
Of course, varroa has a lot less time to build up in Norway as they have six months of winter. Most beekeepers treat only once a year with an oxalic dribble when the hives are broodless in winter. Melissa has just given a talk on her research at the latest Apimodia in Turkey.
One Last Harvest
Just before we came home I went up with Chris to put bee escapes into the hives and then we went back early the next morning, took the honey off and brought everything home. The local heather honey has a reputation for fermenting, so we tested it for moisture content. It was 21% on average, so we kept it warm for three days with a fan blowing across the top and a dehumidifier which brought it down to 18.5%.
The honey is definitely thixotropic and needed pricking, but is nowhere near as thick as manuka. The honeys intense perfume permeated everything, it is too sweetly floral for my tastes. It extracted perfectly in the radial extractor with only a few damaged combs and most of that was caused by the pricker … and me putting the heater a little too close to one stack!
A few days after we brought the hives home Chris went through them and removed all honey frames from the brood box and started the autumn feeding with sugar using top feeders. The idea is to remove as much honey as possible from the brood nest and replace with sugar. Sugar has very little impurities which means the bees don’t have to go on cleansing flights. It regularly gets to 20 below (Celsius) or worse in the winter and, with snow on the ground for up to six months, regular cleansing flights are not an option.
Chris ended up with 30kg/hive from the wild raspberry and 40kg/hive from the heather – pretty good for a heather crop, but a bit below average on the raspberry, he reckoned.
Roadsides and wild corners are covered with multiple species of gorgeous wildflowers, but there are also a lot of native pollinators to compete for nectar sources. The farmed areas are nearly all long grass, cut for silage or grain crops.
Most people seem to winter their hives one high with ventilated floors and a hessian type hive mat. Above that a 100mm high top board, with cloth top and bottom and filled with wood shavings, helps soak up any excess moisture. Feeding in spring is not normally necessary.
Of course the trip wasn’t all work and we did a lot of walking in the forests and visited a lot of museums and the magnificent Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. Spending time with family was the highlight and air travel the low point. Everything you hear about air travel at the moment is true!
All in all, the beekeeping aspects of our Norway trip made for a fascinating and fun look at how bees are kept on the other side of the World. Now, as my son shuts his hives down for the winter, I am getting my 32 hives ready for a new (and very wet) spring while reflecting on some of the things I learned and how I can apply my new knowledge to my own hives.