Spring is honey season—find out how local honey is produced and where to buy some.
Most people see a swarm of bees in their yard and run for the can of pesticide. Not the Foster family. In 1997, when they spotted bees building a hive in the pine tree overhanging the fence on their Carmichael, California, property, they cut down the branch and placed the hive in a box.
“Our kids were young and we were homeschooling,” says Karen Foster. “We thought it was an educational thing to do.”
Their hobby blossomed. By the time they moved to Reno in 2002, they had around nine hives and today, the couple begins the season with 400 hives.
At first, they sold the fruits of their labor—Hidden Valley Honey—at farmers’ markets. Then in December 2009, stores heard the buzz about their product and started selling it. Chris quit his job at that point, as director of molecular biology at a biotech firm, and became a full-time beekeeper. The Fosters also started renting out hives to California almond growers, who need the bees to pollinate their trees.
Initially, Chris and Karen pored over books about beekeeping, but experience turned out to be their best teacher—even though some were sticky situations (pun intended). For example, one Nevada landowner told Chris he hadn’t seen bears in the area in years, so when Chris placed hives on the property, he didn’t surround them with electric fences. Two or three weeks later, the Fosters received a call from the landowner reporting their colonies were toppled over—by bears, naturally.
“Bears create a mess like you wouldn’t believe,” Chris says. “We take bees down to Topaz and that’s probably one of the worst areas for bears. I’ve been hit by bears out at Yerington, Washoe Valley, Gardnerville. Just about everywhere so far except for Wadsworth.”
Another challenge is the Varroa mite. It’s wiping out bees in record numbers. The Fosters lose an average of 40 to 50 percent of their hives annually due to infestations. Then there are the bee stings—an inevitable risk of the profession. Chris doesn’t mind it so much. Karen, on the other hand, gave up dealing directly with the bees after receiving 17 stings in 15 minutes. Now she focuses on bottling, labeling and delivery.
The result of patiently overcoming these challenges? Jars of thick, raw, unfiltered Nevada honey. Most Hidden Valley Honey is a high percentage of alfalfa pollen combined with that of native plants. It’s mild but flavorful.
“Alfalfa honey is a little darker, especially in our area, and has a little more flavor than clover does,” Chris says. “Clover has the tendency to be really nondescript. Really light color. Very sweet. But not a lot going on in terms of flavor.”
The Fosters also sell Ross Rounds, a type of comb honey. Like a varietal wine made from one type of grape, Ross Rounds include honey made from one kind of blossom. Flavors of comb honey differ throughout the year as the bees take advantage of which plant is in bloom. When entertaining, people like to use Ross Rounds as a decorative and tasty addition to a cheese plate with crackers.
For people who sneeze and sniffle during allergy season, the Fosters also sell pollen from local plants like rabbitbrush. Chris has studied medical journal articles on the topic and believes there’s merit to using local pollen to improve immunity. Instead of using a whole spoonful of it, though, Karen recommends putting a couple grains under your tongue every day and letting it dissolve.
When their two children graduated from college and moved away from home, Karen and Chris stopped selling at farmers’ markets. But they’ll offer their sweet fare at the Lavender Honey Festival on June 23 at Victorian Square in Sparks. Northern Nevada stores such as Raley’s, Great Basin Community Food Co-op, Trimmer Outpost in Genoa, and Paul Schat’s Bakery in Carson City carry both Hidden Valley Honey and pollen. Scolari’s, Whole Foods Market, Save Mart, and DuBois’ Health Food Center & Herb Shoppe in Carson City also sell the honey, and a California version is available at Whole Foods Market in Roseville and Folsom. Depending on availability, Whole Foods Market, Paul Schat’s Bakery, and Raley’s sell the Ross Rounds. And you can order honey and pollen at hiddenvalleyhoney.com.