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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.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.14/beekeepers-vs-invasive-species-rules-on-federal-lands]

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