About 100 or so beekeepers will gather this weekend in Yerington to talk bees.
That’s more than 10 times the nine attendees who showed up to the first Mason Valley Beekeepers annual conference five years ago and something of a sign of the growing popularity of beekeeping in northern Nevada.
“We have more colonies than we’ve had before. We don’t have data, but that’s based on my knowledge of 30 years,” said Jeff Knight, the state entomologist.
Before then, 40 to 50 years ago, there were more commercial beekeepers in northern Nevada, according to Karen Foster, who with her husband Chris keeps 200 to 300 colonies of bees and owns Hidden Valley Honey, which sells honey, lip balm, soap and other honey-based products at the Great Basin Food Co-op, Raley’s, Save Mart, Scolari’s and Whole Foods.
Debbie Gilmore’s family was one of them. Gilmore founded the Mason Valley Beekeepers association and with her husband Andy Joyner has been in the beekeeping business for nine years, starting up Hall’s Honey, named after one of the largest Nevada commercial beekeeping businesses, which was operated by her family until 1970.
A surge in interest in locally-produced foods, including honey, which is supposed to alleviate local allergies, has helped small suppliers like Hidden Valley Honey and Hall’s Honey thrive.
But Gilmore said most of the 60 families in the Mason Valley group are smaller outfits.
“Most are hobbyists. The majority have 20 colonies or less and many of them have less than 10 colonies,” said Gilmore.
Why the influx of dabblers?
“You get a lot of hobbyists who want to save the bees,” said Knight.
Nevada bees do not suffer from colony collapse disorder, the mysterious drop off in bee populations found throughout the world, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be a beekeeper here.
Two mites — the varroa and the tracheal — are hurting local bee populations, causing beekeepers to lose up to a third of their bees every year.
“Most of beekeepers lose about 30 percent of colonies,” said Foster. “With 30 percent loss, it’s hard to expand.”
There’s also the drought, now in its fourth year. Bees need water to cool their hives and, of course, plants to pollinate.
“If plants don’t get enough water, they don’t create enough nectar,” said Gilmore, and the bees don’t produce enough honey.
Some Nevada beekeepers such as Hidden Valley Honey’s Fosters take their bees to California almond farms in the winter.
“If (the drought) gets really bad, the almond producers may stop and may not want bees in to fertilize,” said Foster. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
But it can be hard to find locations for bees here.
“Right now we’re trying to expand a little bit, but one of the challenges is finding a place to expand,” said Gilmore. “We’ve had 40 colonies and we’d like increase to 60, but we need at least one more location.”
Gilmore said alfalfa is a good crop to locate near but some ranchers use pesticides. And bigger beekeepers often come here from California.
“They bring them to Mason Valley by the truckload,” said Gilmore. “It’s hard to find a place commercial beekeepers aren’t using.”
So Gilmore is working to establish a public or private pollinator habitat. She’s invited Michele Colopy, program director at the Pollinator Stewardship Council, one of the upcoming conference’s speakers, to come early and meet with local agencies to see if they can get the ball rolling.
“We’ll see where it goes,” said Gilmore. “We’re trying to lay the groundwork.”