Reno Area Beekeepers Sweeten the Local Food Movement

Chris Foster holds up part of a hive. The Fosters currently have 16 hives in the backyard of their Hidden Valley home.

Chris Foster holds up part of a hive. The Fosters currently have 16 hives in the backyard of their Hidden Valley home.

Walking across the yard, a deep and hypnotic buzzing sound becomes louder with every step. The white boxes ahead are habitats for some of nature’s most fascinating insects. Chris Foster, dressed head to toe in a white protective suit, begins to remove lids off of the hives. As the bees fly out of the top, it becomes clear how many bees are in one hive. They move rapidly. Counting them would be impossible.

“Yeah, they are pretty cool.”


Working Bees

Local honey has increased in demand throughout the northern Nevada area over the last decade. Because of the growth in the field, it has become easier to buy honey from local retailers.

“When you think local food, you usually think vegetables and eggs and things like that,” said Chris Foster, co-founder of Hidden Valley Honey. “Honey is definitely an overlooked product that comes out of this area.”

Nevada is home to a variety of beekeepers. They usually fall into one of three categories: Full-time, sideliner (part-time) or hobbyist.

Chris and Karen Foster, founders of Hidden Valley Honey, started their company after a swarm of bees landed in a pine tree by their California home.

“It was solely an edcational opportunity at first,” Karen said. “We cut down the branch it was in and started studying them and learning about how the whole honey process works.”

This graph shows the growth in Nevada Honey farms between 2002-2007. Source: Nevada USDA National Cencus.

This graph shows the growth in Nevada Honey farms between 2002-2007. Source: Nevada USDA National Cencus.

In 2002, Chris took a job opportunity in Reno. The family moved their 8-10 hives to their new home.

“The whole area up here really helps promote the local farming and agriculture movement,” Chris said.

After getting involved with farmers’ markets shortly after coming to Reno, the Fosters began to see their business grow.

“Nevada is really great for local farmers because of the farmer’s markets,” Karen said. “There aren’t as many restrictions like there are in California.”

Local stores started selling the Foster’s brand once the name became more recognized. Hidden Valley Honey is now sold in Whole Foods, the Great Basin Food Co-Op, Raley’s and Scolari’s.

These local brands are available year-round.

“I take the stings and she takes the cash,” Chris said.

Many people get into beekeeping solely for the enjoyment of the insects and the educational aspect of agriculture. Tamara Wood, a local painter, has made beekeeping her new favorite hobby.

“Once you start to learn about bees, you love them,” Wood said.

Click to see local beekeepers in action:

Even as a hobbyist, Wood has seen the growth of beekeepers in the community.

“Ever since I joined the bee club, there have been all kinds of new people getting into it,” Wood said. “It’s crazy how many people are getting into beekeeping these days.”

Wood began beekeeping six years ago and now sells her honey to Moana Nursery. She also gives it to her clients as gifts.

“It’s very labor intensive, especially during the spring,” Wood said. “But it’s so unique and different. I love being a part of it.”

During the warmer months of the year, there can be up to 60,000 bees in one hive.

During the warmer months of the year, there can be up to 60,000 bees in one hive.


Home Means Nevada

“A really great thing about bees is that they are very tolerant of climate,” Chris said. “They are all over the place, from Alaska to Mexico. The harsh heat and intense cold we get here doesn’t bother the bees.”

The alfalfa in the area is good for beekeeping but is not in season throughout the winter months. During this time, the Fosters move their hives to the central valley in California, where almond trees help them pollinate.

“In Reno, spring time is when the hives swarm, so we will bring them back here,” Chris said. “We set up the hives in pastures with lots of alfalfa.”

Leonard Joy, current Vice President of the Northern Nevada Beekeeper’s Association, worked as a hive inspector from 1972-1999. Joy travelled from farm to farm checking for diseased hives.

“Eventually the legislature ruled out the need for an inspector,” Joy said. “This built up the number of bee keepers in the area since they didn’t have to pay for this service anymore.”

Joy became a sideliner shortly after that. He currently has 40 plus colonies throughout northern Nevada and participates in farmer’s markets. Retailers also sell his honey during the winter. As vice president of the Beekeeper’s Association, Joy also advises new and returning beekeepers on how to better their hives and bees.

“There are more and more people getting involved in this every year,” Joy said. “I help people keep their bees and advise them on how to maximize honey production.”

Joy has been a part of the beekeeping community for decades and is passionate about what he does.

“These are such fascinating insects,” Joy said. “I love being a part of this community and this line of agriculture.”

Local honey may have more benefits than people think. Studies have shown that consuming locally-produced honey is likely correlated with combatting seasonal allergies.

“When you eat local honey that has the pollen and natural ingredients in it, your immunity is built up against the pollen in the air,” Joy said.

Chris Foster, before making beekeeping his full-time job, worked as a director for molecular biology. He and his daughter Alyssa wrote a paper called “Evidence for the Use of Local Honey for the Relief of Pollen Allergies.” In this article he talked about what evidence there actually is to back this theory.

“Indirect evidence suggests that local honey, containing hyper-allergenic pollens, has therapeutic value for those suffering from local pollen allergies,” Chris said.


A Sweet New Business

As one of the larger full-time beekeepers in the area, Chris Foster has seen a shift in the way of the beekeeper.

“Personally, we went from hobby to sideline and finally to full-time,” Chris said. “Within the US there has been a shift and more people are becoming hobbyists. Anyone can do it.”

“Nevada is so great about local farmers and locally grown food,” Karen said. “Everyone who lives here should really take pride in the environment we live in and the things that we produce.”


At the Great Basin Food Co-Op, you can find many different brands of local honey. Honey has become an alternative sweetener for many people looking to eat healthier.

At the Great Basin Food Co-Op, you can find many different brands of local honey. Honey has become an alternative sweetener for many people looking to eat healthier.


Exceptional Students Thrive with SWAS Curriculum

As the bell rings, dozens of students return to their respective classrooms. Chatter buzzes through the air. School begins once again. The teachers’ voices become the new sound. Projects and drawings tile the walls of room 33, resulting in a kaleidoscope of color. Tiny hands will use pencils and protractors as their tools. Desks are covered in papers and books. Room 33 is different, however. The unique students that walk into this class every day are what make it different. It is where a group of students can be themselves and flourish academically. They can learn in a way that is best for them. It is, in fact, a school within a school.


A New Type of Learning

“We realize that one size doesn’t fit all as far as education goes,” said KayAnn Pilling, current principal of Roy Gomm Elementary. “There are certain kids who absolutely need a challenge.”

The mentality ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ fuels the School Within a School program, otherwise known as SWAS. Placement in the program requires students to take an IQ test.

“When the child is first tested for eligibility, he or she is considered highly gifted if they are within the 99 percentile,” said Tim Robinson, elementary program coordinator for SWAS. “They are given the option to participate in the SWAS program after we see those results.”

After acceptance to the program, the student is placed into a site closest to their home. Teachers who are part of the Gifted and Talented Program teach SWAS classes. These teachers are specifically trained to benefit advanced students.

“We have some of the best teachers in the district working in our program,” Robinson said.

Although Washoe County Schools have offered Gifted and Talented programs in the past, SWAS programs are relatively new. SWAS classrooms are located at Whitehead, Roy Gomm, Caughlin Ranch and Hunsburger. Roy Gomm has been home to the SWAS program for four years.

“The SWAS kids bring such a great diversity to the student body,” Pilling said. “We were really lucky to get the program here and we have really fantastic teachers and families a part of it.”

There are roughly 130 families currently looking for SWAS admittance.

“Unfortunately, this year we had to put some of the kids on waiting lists,” Pilling said. “A lot more people are looking into this program now as opposed to when it first started out in the district.”

As a former teacher, Robinson connects with the program and finds it necessary to provide these types of services.

“You become a teacher to make a difference in the lives of these kids and that is exactly what SWAS allows us to do,” Robinson said. “We feel passionate about these programs, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”


Family Matters

For many students in the SWAS program, their former classrooms weren’t fitting for numerous reasons.

“A lot of these students would experience issues in class because they were bored with the work and would get fidgety,” Pilling said. “SWAS allows them to be challenged in the necessary ways as to keep them engaged.”

Although the difference at school for SWAS students is obvious, the strongest impact is shown through their personal lives. Andrea Neahusan, mother of six and SWAS parent, has a strong relationship with the program.

“This is a program that I am very personally passionate about,” Neahusan said. “It has seriously changed the lives of my kids.”

After moving to Nevada six years ago, Neahusan began looking for gifted and talented programs for her children.

“I knew that my kids needed to be challenged,” Neahusan said.

13-year-old Kylee Neahusan, a SWAS graduate, remembers feeling frustrated with her schooling prior to SWAS.

“It was hard to try and learn with kids who weren’t learning at the same speed I was,” Kylee said. “I was getting verbally abused by other kids at school. They didn’t want to accept my friends and I.”

Feeling like a misfit at school dampened her love of learning.

“Kylee was only in third grade and I started to see that twinkle in her eye go out,” Neahusan said. “She would make up excuses to ditch school and hated doing any kind of homework.”

Students like Kylee often times feel frustrated with school because they find it boring or pointless.

“Just having that knowledge of the gifted child and embracing it is the most important thing in these classrooms,” said Michelle Behm, current third and fourth grade SWAS teacher at Roy Gomm. “You have to keep them interested and challenged.”

After realizing traditional school wasn’t working, Neahusan began to look into SWAS.

“She really didn’t want to go into SWAS but we wanted her to at least try it,” Neahusan said. “It just broke my heart that she didn’t love school anymore.”

In a few short months, Kylee’s life changed. She flourished in her new classroom, surrounded by like-minded peers.

“I was just able to be myself,” Kylee said. “It helped that everyone else was learning just as fast as I was.”

The Roy Gomm SWAS Students answer the question, “What do you want to be when you  grow up?”

Brenden – Movie Director or Stand-up Comic
Liam – Architect
Will – Air Force Pilot
Lucas – Inventor
Mia – Marine Biologist
Breanna – Artist or Singer
Sydney – Snowboarder
Marisa – Vet
Drew – Artist
Cole – Carpenter
Neeva – Inventor
Joel – Video Game and Lego Designer
Kaitlyn – Fashion Designer
Eli – Chemist
Leo – Computer Game Programmer
Grant – Engineer
Connor – Waiter at a Fancy Restaurant
Brenden – Video Game Designer
Josie – Vet
Violet – Teacher
Claire – Professional Dancer
Kelbey – Florist
West – Astronaut
Lily – Librarian

Will and Celeste Neahusan, Kylee’s siblings, are current Roy Gomm SWAS students.

“In my class, it’s really fun because everyone is like me and we can learn things fast,” Will said. “I was bored last year because I felt like I already knew everything.”

Kylee hopes to one day open a diabetes-friendly bakery. Will dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot and Celeste wants to become a concert pianist.

“The difference that SWAS has made for our home life as a family is immeasurable,” Neahusan said. “I am so incredibly grateful for these teachers. My children are so much happier.”

The SWAS program has proven the difference a change in curriculum can make for a student.

Kimberly Smerkers-Bass, mother of SWAS student Brenden Bass, has also experienced the program’s impact.

“I always knew Brenden was gifted,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He was very verbal and fast at a young age.”

Originially from Verdi Elementary, Brenden found himself bored in class.

“He never wanted to admit that he didn’t like school anymore,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He’s a perfectionist.”

After being tested early on for Gifted and Talented services, Bass began to look into SWAS and visited Roy Gomm with Brenden.

“It was a perfect fit for him,” Smerkers-Bass said. “Mrs. Pilling and Mrs. Behm did a fantastic job at making us feel welcome right away. They went out of the way to do so.”

Brenden experienced a smooth transition from Verdi to Roy Gomm. However, he had to work harder in and out of class.

“I noticed that he was a lot more tired after he started SWAS,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He wasn’t able to finish his homework in two minutes anymore. But the challenge was a good thing for sure.”

Bass notices how SWAS students interact with each other.

“I’ll have Brenden and another SWAS student in the car and I just love listening to their conversations in the back seat,” Smerkers-Bass said. “Just the way that they interact with each other is so different and interesting.”

One of the best things that Bass has noticed about SWAS is Brenden embracing his unique personality and intelligence.

“What I’ve noticed is how Brenden doesn’t mind being labeled as a SWAS kid,” Smerkers-Bass said. “In fact, he thinks it’s pretty cool to be a SWAS kid. He likes being different.”

The level of impact this program makes is shown through many families and their personal stories.


“SWAS not only makes them better students, but improves their lives in general,” Behm said.

“My favorite is knowing students before the SWAS program and seeing the improvement after they have started in their new class,” Pilling said. “I had one student who used to always get into trouble in class. Once he started SWAS, I never saw him again.”

New Perspective     

“As a teacher, you get into this line of work so you can make a difference in these kids lives,” Robinson said. “Being a part of the SWAS program has allowed me to make a difference for these students.”

Advanced learners have changed school experiences thanks to SWAS.

“You never want a student to walk away from school feeling like their educational needs haven’t been met,” Behm said. “I always need to be a few steps ahead of my students to make sure they are always going home learning something.”

Despite their intellectual maturity, Behm understands that children are still learning their social and developmental skills.

“Sometimes, the IQ level and the emotional level of these kids don’t always see eye to eye,” Behm said. “I try to incorporate as much cognitive and social learning as I can into their days.”

“I have to remember sometimes that it is important to let them be kids and not push them too hard,” Neahusan said. “They are still going to be nine-and-ten-year olds no matter how smart they are.”

The SWAS curriculum also focuses on projects and big-picture learning. The students are encouraged to learn independently as a way to form their own learning style.

“SWAS teaches kids to think for themselves, which is something that is so important,” Neahusan said.

Gifted students continue to challenge parents and teachers with their constant desire to expand their knowledge.

“I love a challenge, I thrive off of it myself,” Behm said. “I really connect with kids who are outside the box thinkers.”

SWAS has not only affected the students, but has changed the lives of those teaching.

“SWAS has really made me go back to my roots of teaching,” Behm said. “I am remembering how important it is to cater to the needs of the individual as a whole, not just the intellectual needs.”

This program helps shape a better learning environment for advanced students and benefits those involved. The growth of SWAS leads to a promising future for the program and bright horizons for these children.

“These students are going to be our doctors, our researchers, our creative thinkers,” Behm said. “You have to think about the future and you have to help them flourish.”

Watch the SWAS third and fourth graders in action during class: