THE INDISPENSABLE HONEY BEE
Discover these insects’ wonder and plight and meet locals who have caught the bug.
WRITTEN BY BARBARA TWITCHELL
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS
“…[W]e have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax, thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.”
— The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift
With apologies to Jonathan Swift, that quote really should end with “… and a whole lot more.”
Make no mistake, the honey and wax are fabulous and well-appreciated. But consider this — it’s reported that on average, every third forkful that we bring to our mouths comes to us gratis from the humble bee. That’s right. One third of the human diet — most of those wonderful fruits, vegetables, and nuts — is derived from insect pollination. And though butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, hummingbirds, and even bats do their part, about 80 percent of that work is done by bees. In fact, no other single animal species plays a more significant role in the human food chain.
Beekeepers suddenly look a lot more impressive and important, right? They should. Not only do they play a vital role in filling our plates, they do so in the face of tremendous economic and environmental challenges.
Bee-leaving the hype
There has been rising concern that the bee population — particularly that of the honey bee — has been declining in record numbers the past decade. Based on the latest USDA-funded survey conducted by Bee Informed Partnership, beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016. This represents the second-highest annual loss recorded to date.
Multiple culprits have been blamed for the bees’ demise: pesticides, pollution, pathogens, climate change, drought, and loss of habitat. All probably factor in to some degree.
Such mortality rates force apiarists to withstand significant financial losses. For Northern Nevada’s beekeepers, many of whom are just small business vendors, it’s an ongoing battle to maintain healthy productive hives and boost bee populations in the face of these losses.
There are differences of opinion as to how severe the problem is in Nevada. State entomologist Jeff Knight indicates that our bee population is healthy, stable, and perhaps even improving. However, local beekeepers we spoke with report their recent annual colony losses averaged around 30 percent — lower than the national average but still worrying.
There is universal agreement on one thing: Bees are vital to our welfare, and it’s important to do what we can to ensure their health, vitality, and survival. The following are just a few of the people in our community who are working to make sure the bees keep on bringing us that sweetness and light … and a whole lot more.
Creating some buzz
Sandy Rowley of Beehabitat.com is a Reno activist who has dedicated the last few years of her life to helping bees by raising public awareness and bringing about policy changes. She’s a regular commentator at most state, county, and city meetings, educating elected officials on the unseen dangers that plague our premier pollinators.
A severe illness several years ago left Rowley struggling for her life. It also left her with a lot of time on her hands during treatment and recovery. She spent those months researching environmental chemicals, which she believes contributed to her illness. That, in turn, led her to the plight of the bees.
Rowley’s main concern is pesticides, which she believes play a major role in bee mortality. She says these toxins can do harm in a variety of ways, either directly by poisoning the bees or indirectly by interfering with their functional abilities, causing genetic abnormalities, or weakening their immune systems, thereby increasing susceptibility to pathogens. Many experts and beekeepers tend to agree.
Her efforts have yielded some positive changes. Many parks, schools, and public buildings in the area now are pesticide-free zones, including the Nevada State Capitol grounds. A good beginning, Rowley says, but there’s a long way to go, and she’s not about to quit.
“I decided that I got a second chance,” Rowley says. “I’m still alive. I get to see my children grow up. I’m going to do everything in my power to stop the mindless, indiscriminate use of these toxic chemicals. Pollinators are an indicator species. They’re like the canaries in the mineshaft. We have to realize that we’re all connected.”
Al Sindlinger is not one to shy away from a challenge. After all, anyone who teaches math to high schoolers and fights wildfires in the summer definitely is a brave soul. He’s been keeping bees for 20 years and has been marketing his honey, Al Bees Sierra Nevada Honey, for the last 15. Beekeeping, he admits, always is full of challenges.
“The first few years, I really thought I was a bear keeper, not a beekeeper,” Sindlinger says with a laugh.
Bears, he explains, not only take the honey, but they eat the bees right along with it and usually destroy the hive. When they’re done, you’re pretty much starting from scratch again. Like many beekeepers, Sindlinger now sings the praises of using bear netting to protect his hives.
Four years of drought also took its toll on the bees, resulting in heavy hive losses, he says. Last year was particularly bad, and honey production was low. This year has been better thanks to the wet spring.
Sindlinger and his business partner, Charlie Nash, do what they can to keep their bees healthy. They locate their hives on pesticide-free properties throughout Reno, Carson, and Gardnerville, which helps those farmers and ranchers with pollination while giving his bees the floral resources they need to thrive — a win-win situation.
But even with the best of plans and intentions, it isn’t possible to protect the bees from everything, including pesticides being sprayed on adjacent properties.
“Unfortunately, you can’t tell your bees where they can and can’t go,” Nash says. “Well, you can, but they won’t listen.”
There’s a fourth enemy of an apiarist. Besides bears, pesticides, and drought, there’s vandalism. That happens to the hives, too. It seems adolescent boys can have a lot in common with bears.
On the plus side, the pair take advantage of the close proximity to California, bringing their bees to where there is high demand for almond crop pollinators each spring.
“Almond pollination is a good paycheck for the beekeeper,” Nash says. “And it’s very healthy for the bees. Almond pollen is very potent. It helps them build up their hive very quickly.”
It’s a good thing bees and beekeepers are a tough, resilient lot. They have to be.
The beekeeper’s daughter
Despite the overwhelming challenges facing the bees — or maybe because of them — interest in beekeeping is blossoming, nationally as well as locally. Debbie Gilmore can attest to that better than most.
Gilmore has a strong connection with both the past and the future of beekeeping. Her family has been involved in the business since 1918 when her great-grandfather, Fletcher Hall, moved to Mason Valley, Nev., and started Hall’s Honey. She learned the trade from a young age, working beside her parents to tend the bees and extract honey. In 1970, the family sold the business.
When her mother died in 2006, Gilmore and her sister were going through their mother’s possessions and came across a small stash of money.
“I wanted to spend my share on something that would remind me of my parents and honor their memories,” Gilmore says. “What would be better than a colony of bees?”
So Gilmore and her “honey,” husband Andy Joyner, bought their first bees, and the enterprise just grew from there. Before long, they resurrected the name Hall’s Honey, and a new business sprouted from the deep roots of yesteryear. Today, Hall’s Honey once again is a thriving family business, with Gilmore, her husband, her son, and his new bride working side by side.
But to Gilmore’s surprise, the venture grew in other ways, too. Early on, neighbors started to express an interest in beekeeping and asked for her help. Someone said, “Why don’t you start a bee group?” So she did.
In 2009, Gilmore assembled a handful of neighbors to form Mason Valley Beekeepers. Today the group has a membership of 60 families from nearby communities. They hold monthly meetings, sponsor annual workshops for new beekeepers, have a mentorship program, and organize an annual conference.
Gilmore justifiably is proud of the conference. It started as a workshop with just nine attendees. Last year, the sixth annual Mason Valley Beekeepers Conference offered presentations from nationally known experts and boasted 135 attendees from Northern Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington.
Without question, Gilmore has made a positive difference in the local beekeeping community — increasing the numbers of beekeepers and hives, spreading interest and awareness, providing education, and guiding others in best beekeeping practices to help bees thrive. Still, she admits, she is worried.
“I’ve seen a book that was published when my grandfather was keeping bees, and they had something like a 2 or 3 percent loss,” Gilmore says. “Today, we’re losing a lot more bees. Why?
“I know that farmers are under a lot of pressure to feed a lot of people with limited resources. And consumers are picky; they don’t want to see a worm or insect. So farmers do what they must to get a high yield and a marketable product, and that includes using pesticides. I understand that. But somewhere, we have to recognize that we can’t live without bees. We need to come together to find some workable solutions.”
Since researching this story, Reno writer Barbara Twitchell has a newfound appreciation and respect for these amazing insects and the people who raise, protect, and advocate for them — so much so that she spent the summer planting bee-friendly gardens and creating habitats for wild bees.
Interested in beekeeping?
Whether you’re a novice or an experienced beekeeper, excellent resources in the community provide information, education, mentoring, camaraderie, and support for apiarists of all levels.
Northern Nevada Beekeeping Association
Meets on the second Monday of the month at 6 p.m. from March – October at the Washoe County Library’s Sparks branch, Sparks. For details, visit http://www.Northernnevadabeekeepersassociation.org.
Great Basin Beekeepers of Nevada
Meets on the fourth Monday of the month (excluding December) at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension meeting room in Carson City. For details, visit http://www.Greatbasinbeekeepersofnevada.org/about.html.
Mason Valley Beekeepers
Meets on the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m. from March – October at the Lyon County Library in Yerington. For details, visit http://www.Masonvalleybeekeepers.org.
Mason Valley Seventh Annual Beekeepers Conference
Friday – Saturday, Feb. 24 – 25, 2017. For details, visit http://www.Masonvalleybeekeepers.org.
Who ya gonna call?
“Yikes! A swarm of bees!”
That’s the usual reaction most of us have upon seeing a mass of bees clinging to a tree, fence, or even the side of our house (double yikes!). Well, those in the know say that there’s no need to panic.
“When bees swarm, they’re usually very, very calm,” beekeeper Charlie Nash says.
He should know. He’s removed many swarms from unwanted places.
“Bees attack when they have a hive or a brood to defend,” Nash says. “When they’re swarming, they have neither, so they are unlikely to be aggressive or to sting. They’re just looking for a new home.”
When a hive gets too crowded, Nash explains, the bees begin to create new queens. Shortly before the new queens hatch, the old queen leaves with about half of the bees. That’s a swarm. They fly a short distance and land on some object, where they remain until scout bees find a suitable location for their new hive.
“They can be there for a week or 30 seconds,” Nash says. “That’s why it’s important to call a beekeeper as soon as possible, so they can be captured before they establish a new hive.”
Swarms actually are fairly easy to capture, according to Nash, and many beekeepers in our community are experienced at doing it. There are various techniques, depending upon where the swarm is located. It may involve shaking, jostling, brushing, or whatever it takes to dislodge the bulk of the swarm and drop it into a box. Once you have the queen in there, any stragglers will peacefully follow.
After the swarm is captured, the beekeeper will help it establish its new hive. Some keep it to increase their own colonies or give it to another beekeeper who’s seeking to expand.
“Bees are a valuable commodity to a beekeeper and a vital resource to the environment,” Nash says. “So whatever you do, don’t spray your swarm with insecticide! Call a beekeeper. We’ll be happy to help you resolve the situation, and most of us gladly do it for free.”
The following organizations maintain extensive lists of swarm resources on their websites:
Mason Valley Beekeepers
Northern Nevada Beekeepers Association
Where to buy local honey
Al Bees Sierra Nevada Honey
775-686-0323 ● http://www.Sierranevadahoney.com ● http://www.Facebook.com/albeesnevadahoney
Available through websites and at the following stores: Whole Foods Market, Natural Grocers, Great Basin Community Food Co-op, Buy Nevada First, and The Summit farmers’ markets, all in Reno, The Flag Store in Sparks; and New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee and Tahoe City
Sold at Heaven and Earth Nutrition and Truckee Meadow Herbs in Reno, Du Bois’ Health Food Center and Herb Shoppe, and Lifestream Natural Food Store in Carson City
Dharma Bees Pure Honey
Available at Great Basin Community Food Co-op, Truckee Meadow Herbs, and Wedge Cheese Shop, all in Reno
775-267-1451 ● http://www.Halleluyahhoney.com
Available online and at the following stores: Grass Roots Natural Foods in South Lake Tahoe, San Rafael Coffee Co. in Carson City, and Canyon Embroidery in Gardnerville
Available online and at the following stores: Greenhouse Garden Center in Carson City; Nutrition Unlimited and Eastern Sierra Feed in Gardnerville; and Silverado Ranch Supply, Rex Drug Co., Chevron station, Jeanne Dini Center, and Country Sunflower, all in Yerington
Hidden Valley Honey
Sold at Great Basin Community Food Co-op, Whole Foods Market, Scolari’s, and Sak ’N Save in Reno and Sparks; Raley’s in Reno, Sparks, Gardnerville, Carson City, and Incline Village; Save Mart in Reno, Sparks, and Carson City; farmers’ market and Schat’s Bakery in Carson City; Trimmer Outpost in Genoa; and New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee and Tahoe City
Leonard Joy’s Honey Ranch
Sold at House of Bread and Green’s Feed Inc. in Reno, and at farmers’ markets at the Methodist Church in Sparks and Village Shopping Center in Reno
Pumpkin Honey Bread
(courtesy of the National Honey Board at http://www.Honey.com. Makes 2 loaves)
1 cup honey
½ cup butter or margarine, softened
1 16-ounce can solid-pack pumpkin
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
In large bowl, cream honey with butter until light and fluffy. Stir in pumpkin. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly incorporated. Sift together remaining ingredients. Stir into pumpkin mixture. Divide batter equally between two well-greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let loaves cool in pans for 10 minutes. Invert pans to remove loaves and allow to finish cooling on racks.
Surprising facts about bees
Written by Barbara Twitchell
There are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide and 4,000 in North America.
Ninety percent of all bees are wild native bees. Fewer than 10 percent are honey bees. Despite this, honey bees are responsible for 80 percent of the world’s insect-pollinated crops.
Only honey bees live in hives. Seventy percent of bees nest in the ground. Twenty percent nest in wood.
Almost 90 percent of bees do not live in colonies, but live a solitary existence.
Native bees can be amazing pollinators. Just 300 mason bees can do the work of 60,000 honey bees pollinating an acre of fruit trees .
Honey bees can’t pollinate tomato plants. Only certain native bees, especially bumble. bees, can do that job because it requires buzz pollination, something honey bees cannot do.
Bees cannot see the color red. Remember that when you’re planting a bee-friendly garden.
There are about 60,000 honey bees in a beehive. Collectively, they travel up to 55,000 miles, visiting more than two million flowers, to make just one pound of honey.
Six ways to save the bees
Written by Barbara Twitchell
‘Become a beekeeper’ might seem to be the obvious answer, and if you have the passion for it, that’s great. But beekeeping requires a lot of work, dedication, and financial commitment. It’s not for everyone. The good news is that there are plenty of simpler things the average person can do for our flighty friends. Here are a few ideas:
Plant flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables to attract and sustain bees.
Bees prefer flowers that are blue, purple, or yellow.
To be truly bee friendly, use USDA-certified organic seeds, plants, and bulbs, so the bees are not ingesting pesticides while they feast in your garden.
Plant a wide variety that will provide a steady source of flowers from spring to fall.
Plant native species. Pesticide-free varieties of native plants are available mid-May through mid-October at Washoe State Tree Nursery, Nevada Division of Forestry (775-849-0213).
Don’t apply insecticides that will kill bees. Use organic or natural means to control plant disease and insect infestation. For details, contact the UNCE’s Master Gardener Program at http://www.Unce.unr.edu/programs/sites/mastergardener.
After harvest, allow a few leafy vegetables in your garden to go to seed. Seeding plants allow bees to build up their food supplies before the winter months.
Create simple habitats in your yard for wild bees, which mostly are solitary and nest underground or in wood.
Drill holes of assorted sizes in the southeastern side of wooden fence posts, where bees. can catch the morning sun. Wood-dwelling bees will nest in them.
Create bee blocks, which are just blocks of wood with various-sized holes in them.
Provide a few mounds of loose soil to become a home for burrowing bees.
Buy organically grown produce to support farmers who shun toxic pesticides.
Buy local honey to support beekeepers in your area.