More bees in the Beehive State? Utah lawmaker says a pilot program could boost pollinator populations

The outreach effort would encourage native planting, provide grants for buying seeds.

Freshman Rep. Ashlee Matthews, who describes herself as an “aspiring urban homesteader,” has been growing more fruits and vegetables than her family can eat.

Her quarter-acre garden in West Jordan has flourished with a harvest of tree fruit, raspberries, tomatillos, tomatoes and peppers. She’s had enough produce to feed her family, friends and neighbors and still had plenty left over to preserve for colder months.

Matthews isn’t attributing that success to her own talent as an urban gardener, though.

“I wish that I could take all the credit, but my sweat equity is the same as it has been in years past,” Matthews told her colleagues in a recent legislative hearing. “The biggest impact on our harvest has been the 20,000 bees from our hive putting in the real work, pollinating every blossom on every tree, bush, vine and plant.”

So with one of her first bills, she’s hoping to foster a more robust statewide population of bees to benefit the economy and farmers in Utah — and make sure it continues to live up to its Beehive State nickname.

The legislation would create a three-year pilot program to raise public awareness of Utah’s bees, run workshops on garden habitats and establish grants to cover the cost of planting pollinator-friendly plants. Matthews said it would be similar to a Minnesota program called Lawns to Legumes, which has been using workshops, coaching and cost-sharing to encourage use of native plants.

In this case, the first-come, first-served grants would cover up to a quarter of the cost of buying the seeds or plants that would be part of the program, Matthews said.

“It’s just kind of an incentive to get people to participate,” she told state lawmakers this week.

While many people associate bees with queen-led colonies, Utah actually has about 1,100 different native species of the winged insect, many of whom conduct their lives very differently from the standard honeybee, said Joseph Wilson, a biology professor at Utah State University.

“Utah really is a hot spot of bee diversity,” Wilson told lawmakers recently. “For example, we have nearly 1½ times as many bee species in Utah as the entire Eastern United States.”

Most of Utah’s native bees, he explained, are solitary and make their homes in old logs or holes. There are the leaf-cutter bees, which snip out pieces of foliage for use as a kind of “wallpaper” in their nests. Then there’s the alkali bees, which build complicated tunnels to their egg chambers.

Utah’s bees all need shelter and food, he said, but not all of them like the same flowers. So he hopes encouraging gardeners to plant with pollinators in mind will help give the state’s diverse bee population what it needs to thrive.

Supporters of HB224 stressed the economic importance of bees, with another biology professor reporting that they produced $1.3 million-worth of honey in 2019. And the “pollination services” provided by honeybees and native bees alike are valued at about $1,000 per acre, meaning it would cost roughly that amount of money to pay humans to do the work, Jacqualine Grant, the professor from Southern Utah University, said.

Grant also said educating people about pollinator-friendly landscaping could have several additional perks; using native plants that consume less water could support drought mitigation efforts, and the public outreach could assist wildfire prevention as experts offer guidance on which plants catch fire more easily.

The only hitch so far for the bill has been its price tag.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes said he was fascinated by the bill presentation on a topic “near and dear to my heart,” adding that he loves to watch the pollinators in his backyard. But he also voiced concern about being able to pay for the proposal — which calls for distributing $750,000 in total grant funds across the three years and would cost an additional $140,000 annually for staffing and public outreach efforts.

“That’s a big ask in a year where we don’t have a lot of ongoing funds,” Hawkes, R-Centerville, said. “I’d go so far to say that there’s a snowball’s chance in St. George of getting that kind of appropriation through.”

While Hawkes and another representative asked whether the state could still achieve results with a shorter pollinator program, Wilson said bee studies and programs are typically conducted across several years, since the apparent insect populations can be highly variable.

“Some bees might stay underground in their nest for up to seven years before they emerge,” Wilson said. “And so if you only did a study on how increased habitat affects bees, if you only did it for one year, you might not be seeing any trends at all.”

Ultimately, the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee voted to hold the legislation so members could figure out another way of covering its cost. In an email, Matthews wrote that she’s now working with several state agencies to find different funding sources, but said she didn’t want to say much about the negotiations just yet.

“I don’t want to jinx them,” she wrote. “But I am VERY excited by the conversations that I have had with my colleagues and other stakeholders ... and know that we are all working together to get this to work.”