As a grassroots effort continues to gain momentum throughout the country to produce and eat food from local community sources, Carson City is in some ways once again ahead of the curve.
Consider the popularity of the city's farmers' markets, and in 2009, the Board of Supervisors relaxed its animal ordinance to allow homeowners to keep up to four chickens or ducks on their property so they could collect fresh eggs, and soon, residents also may be able to keep beehives to produce their own honey.
Supervisors approved on a first reading Thursday changes to its beekeeping ordinances that will allow hives or colonies to be placed on the property of any single-family dwelling.
A second reading of the new beekeeping ordinance will be voted on by the Board of Supervisors when they meet on April 5.
For James Ellis, a Carson City beekeeper who manages about 100 colonies all over town, the action was most welcome.
"It's a really enjoyable hobby. It's very relaxing watching them, but for many backyard gardens, they are used more for food (production through pollination) than fun. There is an awareness of 'Where does my food really come from?'" Ellis said.
Other benefits include the claim that those who eat local honey are less likely to have allergic reactions to local pollens in the air. Go to health.howstuffworks.com/diseases-conditions/allergies/allergy-treatments/local-honey-for-allergies.htm to read how honey therapy might work.
And one local beekeeper, David Zahrt, says he allows his bees to sting his hands because it markedly reduces the pain of arthritis from which he suffers.
"I'd much rather have a little bee sting instead of not being able to move my hands," Zahrt said. At medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50602, you can read more about bee venom therapy as an alternative medicine.
Another Carson City beekeeper, Sallie Lincoln, is also passionate about her bees.
"They are fascinating to watch, but more than that, they're a benefit to Carson City," said Lincoln, who has kept bees for nearly 25 years. "We all get more fruits and vegetables because of them."
As the ordinance change is written, lot sizes of less than half an acre are allowed to have two hives. Up to one acre can hold a maximum of five hives and a one-acre or larger lot could have a maximum of 10 hives.
Hives cannot be within 10 feet of any property line, and the hive's flight pattern must be in a direction that will deter bee contact with humans or pets.
The ordinance also outlines how the honey bees are to be cared for by the beekeeper, such as providing them with water installing six-foot high flyaway barriers when necessary to raise the flight pattern of the bees above the heads of people.
Supervisor John McKenna raised questions during the meeting about bee stings and allergic reactions to them, but Ellis said honey bees are non-aggressive by nature and only sting when their life is threatened, such as when they are stepped on.
"Less than 1 percent of people are allergic to bees, and the usual culprits are wasps, hornets or yellow jackets," he said. "Honey bees don't sting without serious provocation. It can only sting once and it loses its life if it does, so they're not out to sting anyone."
The aggressive Africanized bees have not been reported as far north as Northern Nevada, he said.
"They can't survive the winters up here," Lincoln said. "They live mostly where it's hot and humid, but I've heard of some in the Las Vegas area."
Honeybees are very gentle, she said.
"If you nudge a bee while it's on a flower, it will fly away. They do not attack unless they're being stepped on or something like that," she said.
"They do all their work in the hive. They go out to collect nectar and pollen and make a beeline back to the hive to unload. They don't want contact with anyone," Lincoln said.
During the board meeting, Health and Human Services Director Marena Works explained to the board that there are many feral bee colonies within the city limits.
"Some of these bees are not being managed, and they can swarm in places like trees, under benches, in utility boxes, under house eves or barbecues," she said.
THE BEE BUSINESS
Ellis' business, LSBEES, includes feral swarm removal. He says he is more than happy to remove a swarm and provide it with a new home.
Bees swarm when the hive becomes congested. A queen mother and 60 percent of her workers will head out to look for a new home, leaving 40 percent of the workers, as well as queen cells. The first queen to emerge from a cell will head out on a mating flight for four or five days after she matures and return to start laying eggs.
Swarming usually occurs during April, sometimes May. If anyone sees a swarm, they should call an expert. They should never try to destroy it or remove it themselves, Ellis said.
Only one out of six feral swarms will make it through the winter without some help, he said.
Lincoln said she has seven hives now, and all of them have come from feral swarms which she removed for someone.
Ellis says when he takes good care of his bees and leaves plenty of honey for them to eat and feed their young, they produce surplus amounts which he is then able to harvest at the end of their active season.
In Northern Nevada, the average surplus from a colony is 29 pounds, less than the national average of 50 pounds, due to the shorter season and less available forage.
Bees will travel in as much as a three-mile-wide circle to forage for nectar and pollen, but the average range is about one mile. In this area, they love clover, alfalfa, dandelions, vetch, oregano, lavender, fruit trees and in the fall, rabbit brush, he said.
Ellis said his wife bakes all the bread their family of 10 children eats, and honey is a main ingredient, so she uses a lot of the honey they produce, but he also offers beekeeping supplies and services.
"We hope to leave a small family business for our children, and it's more fun working as a family," he said.
The colony is like one organism, Ellis said.
"It's the perfect society. There is zero unemployment and they all work well together," he said.
To be safe, most beekeepers wear protective veils, gloves and a suit to work with the colonies. Smoke is used during their active season primarily to interfere with their pheromone-communication system so their behavior is more docile. Gloves make the work more cumbersome, however, Ellis said.
To get started, a beginner should set up the boxes which will hold the frames. Bees will build wax cells in the frame. Cells hold eggs and store honey to feed their brood. Bees can be ordered and usually come with a three-pound package of bees - about 10,000 workers, a new queen and a can of syrup to get them off to a good start.
Once set up in the back yard, they should be checked every other week through March, April and May to be sure they are settling in comfortably. In June, July and August, they're in honey production mode and don't like to be disrupted so Ellis only checks on them about once a month.
He begins extracting honey in July, August, September and October. By November, many bees are gone, he said, and the rest are pretty much buttoned up for the winter from November through February.
He leaves 70 pounds of honey in the colony for the bees to eat during their dormant season, and he checks the hives only to be sure the entrance doesn't get blocked by snow.
Beginners should know that they won't be able to collect surplus honey the first year, he said.
Ellis said he would like to see more people get involved with beekeeping.
"It's farming, it's agriculture," he said. "I'm very happy about this ordinance. I can't tell you how many people have told me they'd like to become beekeepers."
Ellis said there were more than 5 million managed bee colonies in the 1940s. Today there are only about half that number.
"Some of this can be blamed on a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, but some is natural decline and loss of farm land," he said. "One-third of all the food we eat requires pollination, so we do what we can do."