Beverly Barker, Queen of the Bees

Beehive at Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska

Beehive at Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska

“Do you get stung?” The question burst out of me, unbidden, with an edge of bee-phobic panic I tried to hide. I nervously approached Beverly Barker’s door. Bees were everywhere.

“All the time!” Beverly laughed. “I have to expect getting stung.” She explained bees sting when they’re stressed: “The more focused I am, the less likely I’ll excite the bees and get stung. When bees are agitated, it takes them time to calm down. Bees have a stress pheromone that smells like bananas. When I smell the pheromone, I know the bees are stressed, but as a commercial beekeeper, I can’t wait for them to calm down. So I get stung.”

One of Beverly’s grandfathers was a beekeeper. His attitude towards bees shaped hers: “I’m not afraid of bees because my grandfather wasn’t afraid of them. He didn’t use smoke or a suit. I once asked my grandfather if he was afraid of the bees. He said no, even though he got stung all the time. He was so nonchalant, it didn’t dawn on me to be afraid.”

Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

In fall 2009, Beverly and her husband, Bruce Hougan, bought 7-acres of untamed farmland in Palmer, Alaska and dubbed it Earthworks Farm. She’d recently left her job as a chemistry professor at University of Alaska and decided a life change was in order. Bruce had worked in gardens and vineyards for most of his life; he welcomed the opportunity to have a farm of his own.

The first year, 2010, was a challenge. “When we moved in, there were no birds and no insects. The land had gone fallow and was choked with weeds. Bruce was concerned that with no insects, our plants wouldn’t be pollinated.” To deal with this problem, Bruce suggested Beverly start raising bees, one of her lifelong dreams. She was thrilled by the idea.

Beverly’s 2010 entry into the world of beekeeping didn’t go smoothly: “My first year, I completely bombed as a beekeeper. I stopped feeding my bees in the spring, just like the books advise, but there weren’t yet any plant blossoms for them to feed on. I let them starve to death. I was crying, in tears.” Beverly keenly felt her failure, believing she “had let down the bees.”

Beverly's Bee Yard at Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

Beverly’s Bee Yard at Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

Having learned a beekeeping lesson the hard way, Beverly started over in 2011 with two hives. “I can’t believe how much I babied them. Last year, when my husband couldn’t find me in the field, he knew I was in the bee yard checking to see if everything was okay.” Bruce was aggravated by how much time Beverly spent with the bees, “until last fall when we had our first honey crop.”

Flowers for Sale and for Bee Food, Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

Flowers for Sale and for Bee Food, Earthworks Farm, Palmer, Alaska 2012

Many beekeepers rely on wildflowers for bee food. There are wildflowers around their property, but not enough to sustain 10 hives of bees, which is what Beverly now has. Her bees also feed on the vegetables and flowers Bruce raises to sell at their farm stand or the South Anchorage Farmers’ Market.

Honey’s flavor depends on what bees eat. “Something we’re growing, we haven’t yet determined what, gives our honey a special scent, a special flavor,” said Beverly. This year, expert Alaskan beekeepers advised Beverly to harvest honey early, at the peak harvest time for vegetables. Beverly harvested a few frames early, but “they didn’t have the scent” so she waited before harvesting the rest. Waiting wasn’t in vain, Beverly’s late-harvested honey had finally acquired “the scent.”

To protect her honey’s flavor, and to preserve its full nutritional benefits, Beverly sells only raw honey and takes care not to damage it with heat. (Most store-bought honey is pasteurized rather than raw.) Since raw honey crystallizes faster when cold, Beverley keeps her basement honey room at 70°F, warm enough to keep the honey flowing.

Honey is hydroscopic, which means it grabs water molecules from the air, increasing its water content and ruining its flavor. To prevent this, when Beverly pulls frames from hives at harvest time, she brings them inside her honey room where a dehumidifier is running. Beverly runs the dehumidifier nonstop from her first harvest until she finishes bottling all the honey.

Honey Comb Straight from the Hive

Honey Frame with Comb, Straight from the Hive

Before extracting honey from the comb, Beverly checks the quality by measuring its moisture level. Grade A honey has lower than 17.5% moisture. With higher moisture levels, honey may start fermenting. Beverly also keeps her equipment and bee room impeccably clean to prevent impurities from contaminating the honey.

Beverly Barker Opening Honey Cells, 2012

Beverly Barker Opening Honey Cells

Frames Ready for Honey Extraction

Frames with Opened Combs, Ready for Honey Extraction

Beverly Barker, Extracting Honey, 2012

Beverly Barker Extracting Honey with Hand Crank

Beverly Barker Getting Ready to Drain Honey from Extractor

Beverly Barker Getting Ready to Drain Honey from Extractor

Draining Honey from Extractor. One Bucket Holds 60 Pounds of Honey

In addition to honey, Beverly harvests and processes beeswax, which she uses along with honey to make her cosmetic line, Abeille Alaska. ‘Abeille’ (uh-BAY) means ‘bee’ in French. Beverly currently makes Abeille Alaska moisturizing and deodorant creams, and plans to expand her line further.

Beverly started her cosmetics line in 2011. At the end of fall, she and Bruce no longer had flowers or vegetables to sell. They cast about for alternate sources of income. Beverly started thinking about making moisturizing cream, similar to Burt’s Bees.

For her first batch, she rendered cappings, the wax cover bees use to store honey, and burr comb, the wax cells bees make to fill empty space in the hive, in olive oil and put it in jars. It sold out quickly: “People liked its purity. Since then, I’ve made my creams better by using coconut and almond oils. I love the way these oils combine with beeswax and honey.”

Abeille Alaska New Product Line

Abeille Alaska New Product Line 2012

This year, Beverly expanded Abeille Alaska’s product line to include lip balms, lotion bars, moisturizing creams, perfume, and deodorant. She also upgraded the packaging with bee-themed containers.

Beverly and Bruce will be selling Abeille Alaska products at the Christmas Arts and Crafts Emporium (Booths 108 &109) at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage on November 17-18, 2012. They will also be at the Alaska-Juneau Public Market (Centennial Hall) in Juneau November 23-25, 2012.

Last year, Beverly successfully overwintered two hives. This year she is overwintering ten and plans to further expand Abeille Alaska next year. “I really love bees. That helps a lot. When you love something, you can put up with a few little idiosyncrasies.” Like getting stung? “Exactly!”

 

 

 

My favorite way to eat Beverly’s raw honey is drizzled over Greek yogurt or spread on toast. It also pairs well with fruit and nuts. I like serving lightly honeyed fruit for simple yet delicious desserts. Mandarin Oranges with Rosemary Honey and Honey-Grilled Figs with Lemon Mascarpone are two of my favorite honeyed fruit desserts.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:

 

Giveaway

Abeille-Alaska-Giveaway

Abeille Alaska makes organic cosmetic products using pure Alaska-grown honey and beeswax from bees raised by Beverly Barker of Earthworks Farm in Palmer. For this giveaway, Abeille Alaska is offering one lucky winner a gift tin including hand-crafted lip balm and a lotion bar.

 

Enter the Abeille Alaska Cosmetics with Pure Beeswax and Honey Giveaway. Note : The deadline for entries is noon (12:00 pm) Alaska time on November 29, 2012.

5 Responses to Beverly Barker, Queen of the Bees

  1. What a lovely post :). All tied up with generational sharing and learning at the hip and another reason why I really want to keep some bees. As we reclaim our 4 acres of overgrown jungle and turn it back into a useful space I am developing a keen eye for bees…they love certain plants…they love plants that you wouldn’t think that they love and they are everywhere! I would love to keep bees for pollination. Not necessarily for the honey. Does that sound weird? As horticulturalists we are well aware of how important pollination is to fruit set and just about everything to do with seed set (aside from the odd fig where little wasps crawl inside and pollinate the fruit but that…is another story!). Thank you for sharing this delightful reminder that a slow life is most definately a rewarding one :)

    • Laurie Constantino says:

      Hi narf7!

      ! I’m so glad you like the article – I really enjoyed doing this piece and feel lucky to have met Beverly and learned about her efforts to build and create a new business in Alaska. Sounds like you and Beverly/Bruce are on the same track – getting into bees for pollination, with honey as an amazing side benefit. I met a woman in Seattle last June who has been placing hives in other people’s gardens all over town. They get pollination – she gets the honey, which she also shares with the home owners. Such a wonderful concept – both sides benefit and both sides win!

      Thanks for commenting,
      Laurie

  2. Maria Hillhouse says:

    What a wonderful story. Thank you for the fascinating details about beekeeping and the process of collecting and keeping raw honey. It is truly a labor of love! I am also glad to find out about another local source for raw honey. Will Beverly and Bruce be selling their raw honey at the Dena’ina Center, too, or do you know where else I can find it?

  3. Hugh Steele says:

    we have bees we live in Georgia how in the world do you keep them in the winter ?do you have to feed them ?do you warehouse them ? your winters there are very cold Thanks Hugh Steele

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