Jennifer and Marcus Zbinden’s Chanhassen backyard is all abuzz this summer.
Over a year and a half ago, Jennifer Zbinden requested that the city amend its ordinance regarding beekeeping in the city. She asked that the city reduce the required lot size for beekeeping, so residents like her could raise honeybees in their backyards.
Zbinden met and worked with the Planning Commission and, upon its recommendation, the Chanhassen City Council adopted Ordinance 634 in June 2018, allowing beekeeping in residential backyards.
“The biggest concern we had at the time,” said Associate City Planner MacKenzie Young-Walters, “is if someone is allergic to bees and buying a house; we wanted to have it documented so that the potential buyers were informed.”
Since last June, the city has issued only two permits for beekeeping, including one to the Zbindens.
“A lot of people had inquired about it,” Young-Walters said. “I don’t know if they’re still going through the permitting process, getting their 16 hours in of training either at the University of Minnesota, or an equivalent training,” Young-Walters said, of the education required to gain a permit.
“It could also be that when they looked into the cost of setting up, they decided against it,” Young-Walters said. According to Tom Minser of Nature’s Nectar in Oakdale, a family can get into beekeeping for as little as $250 or as much as $650. A package of 8,000 honeybees costs $141.
“There are different levels of equipment,” Minser said, “from boxes you assemble, to assembled and unpainted, to assembled and painted. And you can get everything you need from bee suits to gloves to bee smokers. “There are some people who just get the helmet or veil, to some who don’t even buy the gloves.”
As a senior environmentalist with the Carver County Environmental Services department, and an elected member of the Carver County Soil and Water Conservation District, Marcus Zbinden is well aware of the importance of pollinators like honeybees. Jennifer, whose day job is as an accountant with Wells Fargo, had begun reading about raising honeybees. The more she learned, the more intrigued she was about establishing a honeybee colony in her backyard.
And, as empty nesters, they finally had time to look into a new pastime.
“It’s unbelievable what these bees do,” Jennifer said. “They’re organized, industrious, if there is damage to the hive, they fix it, they feed the babies.”
Jennifer took the required 16 hours of training earlier this year at the University of Minnesota, learning the essentials about honeybees, their hives and keeping them healthy. In class, they worked with sample hives — no live bees are involved — and learned to work with the equipment. “And the first thing they tell you is, ‘Don’t do it if you want honey.’”
The Zbindens were fine with that. “We wanted to provide a habitat for bees and other pollinators,” Jennifer said. She purchased a package of bees, a queen and beehive boxes from Nature’s Nectar, and picked them up at the end of the April.
“A package of honeybees includes 8,000-10,000 worker bees and a queen that you put into a box,” Jennifer explained. “They grow, and you keep adding boxes. You know to add another box when the comb is getting full.” She started with 8,000; she estimates she has about 60,000 honeybees now.
Tending to the hive means checking them at least a couple times a week, removing the frames, ensuring the queen is still laying eggs, that bee larvae is in different stages, and that pollen is being stored, “and then you see the nectar coming in.” Jennifer is diligent, as the survival rate of honeybees is 50 percent due to mites.
This fall, she’ll prepare the hive for winter by wrapping it and protect it from wind with hay bales. “And then everybody huddles in a ball and keeps the queen warm.”
The couple also replaced a portion of their lawn with pollinator habitat. So not only do they have a thriving hive, but once established, the pollinator garden will provide plenty of nourishment for the honeybees.
The Zbindens took advantage of a new Carver Soil and Water Conservation District grant program which the Carver County Board approved earlier this year. The program reimburses residents up to $1,000 to replace a portion of their lawn with a pollinator habitat.
“I applied for the grant after we got the bees,” Marcus said. “I’m a proponent of reducing the amount of lawn. You mow less, and water less.” He removed 800 square feet of sod from his backyard, next to Jennifer’s beehives, and bought pollinator plants from Prairie Restorations in Watertown. The plants came as plugs and in seeds, which Marcus planted earlier this summer. They’re blooming now, and will be fully established in three years.
The pollinator plants include coneflower, bee balm, butterfly weed, milkweed, blazing star, Joe Pye weed, thistles and clover. They’re low maintenance, needing little water, and in fall, just need to be mowed down.
Carver County residents can apply for the grant by calling the Carver Soil and Water Conservation District, where a technician will walk the caller through the application process. Applicants draw up a plan with the plants they want, and provide a cost estimate.
The grant will reimburse residents for the costs of removing the sod and prepping the area. Marcus rented a tiller to help prepare the planting site. Residents also agree to a 10-year maintenance agreement.
“For a homeowner, you can replace up to 500 square feet of lawn for about $1,000,” Marcus said. “The grant will reimburse costs up to 75 percent, so it will actually cost a homeowner $250. My project was 800 square feet; I spent $850 and I got $600 back from Soil and Water. If you’re in the city or township, you could do half an acre, and be reimbursed for up to $5,000.
“The county board is very supportive of it (the grant),” Marcus said. “And there’s potential for state funding to add to it. My dream is to have every homeowner replace some lawn with pollinators.
“Native plantings doesn’t need as much watering, and once established, they can fend for themselves,” Marcus said. “When you look at the time and effort and cost of maintaining a lawn with fertilizing and herbicides and grub control; you’re also killing the good benefits like fireflies. That’s why people don’t see as many fireflies anymore. And the insecticides are toxic to honeybees, too.”
As nature lovers, the pollinator garden and the beehive have added a lot to the aesthetics of their backyard.
“We like to sit on the back porch, and watch the honeybees flying all over the place,” Marcus said. “They don’t bother us. They go to their pollen and nectar as far as five miles away. Honey bees are not aggressive, and don’t fly low.” As for the neighbors, “They’ve been great,” Jennifer said. “They’ve been very supportive and interested. And I promised them honey when we can finally harvest some.”