Is the Beehive State really the second-worst state to keep bees?

A national ranking puts Utah near the bottom, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story, a beekeeping expert says.

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Beekeeper Amber Lawvor inspects bees in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. A recent survey by a national lawn-care company ranked Utah as the second-worst state for keeping bees — though a local beekeeping expert said the survey is using "a very skewed set of data."

It’s an email subject line that will make any food writer sit upright in their chair: “Utah is the No. 2 worst state for beekeeping.”

Utah? The Beehive State? Bad at keeping bees?

That’s the reading of the turf-care chain LawnLove, which sent out the results of its study in mid-June, ahead of National Pollinator Week, June 20-26. Only Nebraska ranked lower than Utah.

(LawnLove, like many companies trying to get a little attention amid the clutter of the internet, regularly sends out ranked lists like this — such as the worst cities for grass allergies and the best cities for outdoor weddings.)

The metrics were based on data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was only available for 40 out of the 50 states. Among those, Utah ranked 36th out of 40 for honey yield, 35th on price of honey per pound, 34th on farmers markets offering honey, and 27th in number of beekeeping associations.

Julie Arthur, president of the Wasatch Beekeepers Association, looked at the study’s rankings — and said she disagreed with some of its conclusions.

“The USDA data comes mostly from commercial beekeepers, so there’s not really data there about backyard beekeepers,” she said. “So it’s a very skewed set of data when you’re talking in general about beekeepers in Utah.”

Hobby beekeepers, classified as those who keep fewer than 10 hives, and sideline beekeepers, who have 250 or fewer hives, are among the 3,500 members of Wasatch Beekeeping Association’s Facebook group. Arthur took an informal poll on the group’s page, and said she heard from one member who had more than 500 hives — but more than half of those responding had between two and four hives.

Amateur beekeepers are asked to register with the state, Arthur said, but it’s not a requirement. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, or UDAF, doesn’t gather data from backyard beekeepers, either, she said.

UDAF, she said, “is really more of a honeybee health organization that makes sure beekeepers are good stewards of their hives, and not nuisances to their neighbors. … They want to know if there’s disease in the bee population, so we don’t end up with a whole state of dead beehives.”

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Beekeeper Amber Lawvor inspects bees in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. The hive was moved from the top of the Salt Lake City Public Library's main building during renovations.

More than making honey

The study also placed Utah at the bottom because of its hot, dry desert environment, which it said was supportive of native bees, but a bad place for honeybees. It’s true, Arthur said, that nectar flow depends on how much blooming vegetation bees can find — but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep backyard hives.

The bulk of nectar flow in Utah happens in June, Arthur said, so the season for honey production is nearly over.

“You might get a small amount with the fall flowers,” she said. “But because we’re so hot and dry in July and August, many, many nectar sources dry up for bees. But it depends on what kind of a spring we have. We’re hearing from beekeepers who say they have three honey boxes already, and then we’re hearing from beekeepers that have barely filled one honey box.” A honey box, on average, can hold around 8 pounds of honey.

The location of a hive is also important, Arthur said. “If you live in an area where alfalfa is still being planted, you’ll get a lot more honey than where I live, in Draper, where my bees are relying on plants people have planted,” she said.

The LawnLove study, by focusing on honey production, misses the point of keeping bees, Arthur said.

“They’re just such fascinating creatures,” she said. “Any bug that can fly three miles from home in any direction, and then come back and communicate to all the other foragers in the hive, ‘There’s a tree three miles southwest of here that’s blooming; let’s go get the nectar’ — how do they do that? Some people [keep bees] because they believe in pollination, some people do it for the ecological factor. And then some people only do it for the honey.”

In Arthur’s experience, she said, the ones who are in it only for the honey generally don’t last long — because they often aren’t interested in taking care of bees in a way that allows them to thrive.

“Some people get enamored with it, and they’re like ‘Oh, I can get honey,’” she said. “They go out and buy everything they need, and then they throw bees into it. Then … they’re calling us saying, ‘I’m having all these problems.’ And we’re like, ‘Did you read a book? Did you look at a website?’ And they’re like, ‘no.’”

Becoming educated about beekeeping before getting a hive, Arthur said, is “really, really important for the health of the bees — not just your bees, but all your neighbors’ bees — because once you get a disease, it’ll spread like wildfire within a square mile.”

Arthur isn’t against people enjoying honey from local hives. She’s in favor of it — especially when commercial honey is often bottled from myriad sources, and is rarely pure, no matter what the label says.

“Buy honey from a backyard beekeeper, or a local beekeeper,” she said, “because it won’t be honey that has syrup or sugar water or anything else like that in it.”

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Beekeeper Amber Lawvor inspects bees in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. The hive was moved from the top of the Salt Lake City Public Library's main building during renovations.

How to help the bees

Arthur urged Utahns to focus on supporting pollinators, both honeybees and native species — who are facing more threats to their survival than ever.

Take, for example, an unseen side effect of the drive, borne from water conservation (which Arthur said she supports), to rip out lawns — and with them plants, like red clover, that foraging bees feed on — and replace them with rocks, gravel and other hardscaping.

“It’s hard to pull weeds that are in rocks,” Arthur said, “so they use herbicides to kill them. And that’s horrible for honeybee populations.”

Arthur said drought-resistant, perennial blooming plants are good at conserving water and supporting bees. However, she recommended that when buying such plants, especially from big-box garden stores, check the label to make sure they’re not sprayed with neonicotinoids, which are lethal to bees. (They are labeled “neonic” for short, and, as the name implies, they are related chemically to nicotine.)

People interested in beekeeping, Arthur said, should do some research first. Start by looking up local ordinances regarding hives. (For Salt Lake City, go to the city’s website, www.slc.gov/sustainability/local-food/beekeeping-in-salt-lake-city.) The Utah Extension Office offers resources for beekeepers (at extension.usu.edu/beekeeping), and so does the Wasatch Beekeeping Association, at wasatchbeekepers.org. Utah State University and Wheeler Farm both offer spring beekeeping classes, and WBA just purchased a collection of educational hives and will launch a series of classes in August. (Check the WBA’s website in the next few weeks for details.)

If a would-be keeper is still enthusiastic after all that, WBA offers one-on-one mentoring with experienced beekeepers. “They can go online, apply for a mentor in our club, and we’ll match them up,” Arthur said. “Our treasurer did not have a hive at all last year, but he was a mentee, and learned everything he could. He got his bees this spring — and he’s doing really, really well.”