Environmental groups want to block honeybees from Utah’s national forests

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bee Keeper Darren Cox, inspects his hives in Logan Canyon, in the Cache National Forest where he stores hundreds of hives in the summer, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Logan Canyon • In an alpine meadow near the top of Logan Canyon, Darren Cox pries the lid off one of 96 gray boxes housing his industrious insects, whose labors help ensure California’s almond harvest and produce some of the sweetest deliciousness that has ever touched a tongue.

The fourth-generation Utah beekeeper pulls frames from the exposed hive, looking for signs of fungal infections and listening for sounds that could indicate the hive’s queen has gone AWOL. With bees swarming around his hands and head, Cox breaks off a chunk of comb, dripping with a honey whose clarity and flavor are unlike anything you’ll find in a typical grocery store.

“This is one of only three honeys that’s produced in the United States that does not granulate. It’s the different types of sugars in the plants. It’s a reflection of the environment,” Cox says. “This is what Logan Canyon tastes like.”

Every summer the proprietor of Cox Honeyland of Utah parks a few hundred of his 5,700 hives in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest at eight locations in the Bear River Mountains. During a time of year when their pollination services are not needed by growers, Cox bees gather pollen and nectar here on public lands that are not only teeming with forage but also are free of pesticides, asphalt and other things that disrupt the work of honeybees.

But honeybees are not native to North America, and now several environmental groups are asking the U.S. Forest Service to put the brakes on new apiaries in national forests, especially in Utah, which happens to have a powerful cultural affinity for the honeybee. The groups’ 12-page petition lays out a case for how honeybees could compete with native bees and spread disease, adding unnecessary pressure to these insects so vital to the forests’ ecological health, thanks to their role in pollinating plants.

“This petition is asking for simple, commonsense protections for essential pollinators,” says Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Allowing nonnative animals to forage broadly across the landscape without considering potential impacts to our native plants and animals is not sound land management, given the existing evidence that shows the effects that honeybees can have on our native bees. Solutions that help beekeepers must not further endanger the already struggling native bees on which our national forests depend.”

Joining the Xerces Society in filing the petition on July 29 were the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Utah Native Plant Society.

The Beehive State

Honeybees arrived on North American shores in the 1600s with Europeans who raised them to produce wax and honey and pollinate agricultural crops. In Utah, honeybee colonies appeared within a year or two of Brigham Young’s 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.

Beekeeping has since woven its way deep into the cultural fabric of Utah, aka the Beehive State, where images of honeybees are ubiquitous, thanks to their association with industrial efficiency and collective sacrifice. Skeps — the igloolike structures that beekeepers used before the 1852 invention of boxes fitted with frames — are featured prominently on the state’s flag, highway signs, even the sides of highway patrol cars.

But beekeeping is not nearly as widespread as it used to be, and that could spell trouble for agricultural production because about a third of the food grown in the United States depends on the pollination services of honeybees like Cox’s.

Today, U.S. honey producers maintain about 2.6 million bee colonies, according to the National Honey Board. That’s at least 100,000 fewer from beekeeping’s peak in the late 1940s. The decline is due to the paving of agricultural areas and other activities that have stripped flowering plants from the landscape, according to Diana Cox-Foster, a Logan-based bee researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Across the country we need additional bee pastures,” says Cox-Foster, who is not related to Darren Cox. “There has been a decline from the human impacts on both agricultural ecosystems and natural ecosystems.”

As commercial honey producers continue to lose places to pasture their bees, some have turned to national forests to harbor their hives after the pollination season. Three years ago, Adee Honey Farms, one of the nation’s largest producers based in South Dakota, sought permission to park 44 apiaries — large groups of stacked hives — on Utah’s Wasatch Plateau in the Manti La-Sal National Forest, drawing the attention of environmental groups.

“We are proposing to put as many apiary sites as possible across different Utah national forests at our researched sites,” Adee employee Brian Burkett wrote in the 2017 application. “We are desperately trying to get out of pesticide areas [due] to the loss of bees.”

The application has yet to be approved and just two honey producers hold apiary permits on Utah’s national forests, according to Susanne Tracy, a spokeswoman in the Forest Service’s Intermountain regional office.

Bee biodiversity

At least 4,000 bee species are native to the lower 48 states, with the desert Southwest serving as a particularly hot spot for bee biodiversity. Utah is home to 1,100 species.

The natives live differently than honeybees, and their way of life could put them and the plants that depend on them at risk if commercial colonies are parked in their midst, Hatfield warns. Many natives specialize on just a few plants, so the loss of those bee species could take down native species of plants as well.

“We have an incredible diversity of native plants that have evolved alongside their native pollinators and need their native pollinators to thrive and survive,” says Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society. “Introducing vast numbers of honeybees onto our public lands can pose a grave threat to these plants and their pollinators.”

With the exception of bumblebees, native species are solitary creatures; a single female supports an entire nest. Even the short-term presence of a commercial apiary could overwhelm the supply of available forage for the year-round inhabitants that have a brief seasonal window to gather the pollen and nectar to get them through the year, the petition claims.

Darren Cox believes the concerns raised in the petition are overblown and suspects the presence of apiaries could benefit national forests by increasing pollination, particularly after devastating wildfires.

While he must pay for the privilege of placing bees on the forest, agricultural producers pay him $2.10 per hive for each pollination event. His hives begin the year in California’s almond groves, then on to avocados. The hives return to northern Utah in the spring before he disperses some to higher ground for the summer, generally from May to September.

“If it’s too wet or we have too high of a snowpack, sometimes I won’t get in here till late June,” he says during a recent visit to a high-elevation site in Logan Canyon. “If we’re worried about extreme drought, I pull them out early.”

Cox believes the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest’s Logan district can support five times the eight apiaries he is now allowed. Each of his sites has 64 to 96 hives, stacked six high in a series of towers. Each can weigh up to 100 pounds as it fills with honey and wax.

“Over the years that access has been more and more restricted as our population continues to grow. It’s very difficult to find, with today’s laws and regulations, a flat level area to place your bees that hasn’t got a campground in it,” he says. “I don’t know that we’ve got enough campgrounds in Utah for the amount of people looking to go camping.”

Foraging bees follow waterways and can roam three or more miles from the hive.

“They’re making more flowers. They’re making healthier trees. It could wind up the honeybees are a benefit for public lands,” Cox says. “The bees here are creating life. They’re not damaging the flowers. By pollinating the flowers in the Forest Service [lands], it ensures a lot of flowers, blooming plants and not just grasses and sagebrush, so it makes it better.”

Cox’s entire operation employs seven people and annually produces 70,000 to 220,000 pounds of honey, each pound fetching about $2.

He notes the Forest Service is under a mandate to accommodate the production of food, timber and minerals on its lands. Unlike ski resorts, livestock grazing, mining, and other forest users, honeybees don’t damage the resources, he argues.

Hidden impacts

But environmentalists fear there could be a hidden impact because honeybees are equipped to outcompete native bees, which don’t live in large colonies.

“Honeybees, because they form these social organizations, have evolved to communicate with each other,” Hatfield says. “They can recruit the entire hive to go to an abundant resource and deplete it. The native bees have to fly around to find it, expending energy.”

Federal scientists are now using Cox’s bees to understand the quantities and types of nectar and pollen consumed by honeybees versus their native counterparts in national forest settings. Cox-Foster is conducting the study on a remote private ranch surrounded by national forest, far from any other honeybee hives.

“Preserving both native and honeybees is critical. We are studying their forage requirements, how much pollen and nectar do each of these species require and what are the interactions between the species,” Cox-Foster says. “We are taking an unbiased approach to pull together the data on how much pollen and nectar they are bringing back, what plants are they foraging on.”

Her findings could determine whether honeybees compete with native pollinators. But environmentalists say available evidence indicates honeybees displace natives; the question is to what extent.

Should Cox lose his access to national forests, he figures he will just shrink his operations. And that could mean not only less honey but also fewer almonds and avocados.