Michelle Heberling has a green and buzzing patch of sustainability in her Benicia yard, including a garden, compost bin, chickens and a bee hive. She aims to grow her own food and teach her son Wesley, age 10, where food comes from while doing her part for the local environment.
Heberling is one of Benicia’s numerous beekeepers who have apiaries in their backyards, and in rural land north of town. Some beekeepers use honey and wax for their own uses or give and sell jars to friends, neighbors and co-workers. Others have many hives. Jim Silbernagel of Benicia Bees sells his honey wholesale and at Heritage Pantry & Spice inside First Street’s Tannery Building. Local honey is also available at Pedrotti Ace Hardware in Southampton, where Goldrush Bay Area raw honey can be purchased.
Beekeeping was once illegal in Benicia, but that changed last July when the city lifted a ban and agreed to allow beekeeping in residential areas with a permit. Heberling said she feels good about the new ordinance and plans to secure a permit. Benicia Police Lt. Scott Przekurat said the city has not received any complaints. Under the ordinance, beekeeping is not allowed in apartments, mobile home parks or condominiums. Apiaries must be registered with Solano County and restrictions apply on how many colonies can be kept according to lot sizes. Apiaries are allowed in back yards and ten feet from rear and side property lines. Screens and other barriers must be in place to direct flight paths of bees away from neighbors. The new ordinance is working fine, and the code is enforced only if the city receives a complaint, City Attorney Heather McLaughlin said.
Bee advocate Gretchen Burgess and Benicia Community Gardens Executive Director Elena Karoulina lobbied for the new ordinance for years. Karoulina said bees and beekeepers need to be protected in the wake of drastic bee colony collapses and bee die-offs. “With the drought we’re losing even more bees; and, unfortunately, our landscaping is very short-sighted. We replace grass with gravel and bark rather than plant a landscape that might attract and benefit bees,” she said. Bees greatest benefits are that they pollinate plants as they gather nectar and carry pollen from flower to flower, said Karoulina. Bees maintain plant communities and ensure seed production. As bees struggle in today’s world, their fate might very well be found in the yards of amateur beekeepers, said Burgess.
Beekeepers approach the craft in their own ways. Heberling takes a hands-off approach, letting the bees do their own thing without much interference. She uses the honey in her Supper’s On organic food catering business, and the wax to make candles and lip balm. She also gives honey to friends who suffer seasonal allergies. Those with such allergies ingest the same pollen that produces allergies that the bees have spread in gathering nectar and making honey. As such, they develop a tolerance.
Benicia teen Logan Bledsoe began his adventure with honey bees when he was just 5-years-old. He and his family had watched a TV documentary on bee colony collapse and he asked “What can we do to help?” His dad replied they should get some bees. The teen assists his dad with harvesting and other chores. The family’s bees travel up to seven miles to gather nectar, and Locan can tell from the honey’s taste and color if they’ve been in lavender or other flowers.
Logan sticks up for honey bees whenever he can. He dispels a common belief that bees will sting people repeatedly, unprovoked. Honey bees only sting if they feel threatened, he said, stressing it’s in their best interest not to sting as they die immediately after. He wants to stick with beekeeping. “I like helping out nature. I love animals and I count bees as animals. I want to help them out for sure. We need them, not just for nature, but for us. They help out with a ton of crops. Without them we wouldn’t have a whole lot of nuts, fruits and vegetables,” he said.
For those who do not keep bees but want to help them, Silbernagel suggests they grow flowers and plants that bees like, and not use pesticides or other chemicals on them. Above all, he said to remember all the good bees do and how much people rely on them for their food and the Earth. “Healthy bees mean a healthy planet.”