Commercial honeybees threaten to displace Utah’s native bees

Federal lands could offer hives a respite from pesticides.

 

The 1876 Utah territory coat of arms features a beehive.

Although a beehive adorns Utah’s state seal, honeybees are not native to the “Beehive State.” They arrived in Utah with Mormon settlers, who held the honeybee in high regard for what they considered its industrious nature and collective spirit, virtues they saw embodied in their own community. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young initially named the region “Deseret,” the Book of Mormon’s word for honeybee.

Less celebrated is the state’s notable native bee diversity. In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone, more than 650 native bee species have been identified. By comparison, just 750 documented native bee species exist in total east of the Mississippi River. 

Now, a push to store commercial honeybees in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest could threaten its native bee diversity. Located about 100 miles north of Grand Staircase, the national forest is home to hundreds of native bee species, including the declining western bumblebee. Scientists worry that a large influx of honeybees could bring resource competition, disease and ecosystem impacts.

A western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, from Utah County, Utah. They are one of hundreds of native bee species in the state.

According to documents acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act requests, Adee Farms, the largest private beekeeper in the country, has persistently applied for bee storage on several Utah national forests since 2012, boosted by a 2014 Obama administration memorandum that directed federal agencies to aid both honeybees and native bees. In the fall of 2017, Adee applied to place 100 hives each on 49 sites in Manti-La Sal, which equates to hundreds of millions of bees. To date, it has received permission to place 20 hives at just three sites each in the national forest.

Commercial honeybee populations have plummeted in recent decades, in large part due to months spent pollinating crops coated in pesticides. With immune systems weakened by chemicals, honeybees are vulnerable to diseases and pests, including the varroa mite, which latches onto honeybees and sucks them dry. Meanwhile, available land for storing bees during their off-season has shrunk, thanks to funding cuts to a federal program that paid Midwestern farmers to let land fallow. Beekeepers often stored their hives on this land.

“We are desperately trying to get out of pesticide areas due to the loss of our bees,” wrote Brian Burkett, an Adee Honey Farms employee, on one bee-storage application. 

Tara Cornelisse, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, called pesticides the “common enemy” of both honeybees and native bees. “The reason honey producers want to put their hives there is that there are so few unimpacted places,” she said.

A commercial beekeeper opens one of his 72,000 hives to pollinate fruit trees in Lost Hills, California. Beekeepers hope to store their hives on Utah’s public land during their off-season.
Anand Varma/National Geographic/Getty Images

The company has sought bee storage on at least three national forests in Utah. Honeybee storage on forest service land is not new: The practice exists in Arizona and California, as well as on Wasatch-Cache National Forest in northern Utah. Even so, scientists and conservationists fear what the spread of bee storage to southeastern Utah might do to the area’s native bee populations.

The threat to native bees stems from the same collective nature that the Mormons admired in honeybees: Honeybees, which are social, direct others in the hive to viable sources of pollen and nectar. Most of Utah’s native bees are solitary, not social, so they risk being outnumbered in the hunt for floral resources. Honeybees are also generalists; they pollinate many plants, which accounts for their value as commercial pollinators. Many native bees, meanwhile, have evolved to visit specific kinds of plants, so if they are driven away, they have fewer options, and their populations could decline from lack of food. That can affect an ecosystem’s makeup, because native bees often are better at pollinating native plants than honeybees. According to Vincent Tepedino, a retired bee biologist who has urged the Forest Service to reject honeybee storage, substantial honeybee storage in the Manti-La Sal could eventually change fruit and seed production. This would impact birds and other animals throughout the ecosystem.

Biologists also worry about the sheer magnitude of resources used by honeybee colonies. A research paper by Tepedino and James Cane, an agency entomologist based in Utah, calculated the amount of resources collected by a honeybee colony, and translated that into the equivalent number of baby solitary bees. In four months, the 4,900 hives requested by Adee would remove enough pollen to rear hundreds of millions of native bees.

Scientists say the effects of honeybees on native species, especially the potential for disease transfer, demand further study. “Absolutely there needs to be more research to learn more about competition and impacts,” said James Strange, a research entomologist for the Agricultural Research Lab.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the title of James Strange, who works for the Department of Agriculture, not the Forest Service. We regret the error. 

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News.  Email him at nickbowlin@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...