Thomas Meinzen: Beehive State’s native bees under pressure from invading European honeybees

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A hive of bees, taken on July 6, 2017.

There’s a profound irony to Utah’s state symbol, the honeybee hive. Although Utah is home to over 1,000 species of native bees, honeybees were actually introduced to Utah from Europe. Among America’s native bee species, one in four lives in the Beehive State — and right now, their lives are jeopardized by plans to stash millions of commercial honeybees on Utah’s national forests.

Times are tough for bees. They face many threats, including pesticides — highlighted in the Endangered Species Coalition’s recent report, “Poisoned: 10 American Species Imperiled by Pesticides” — as well as habitat loss, overgrazing and climate change. However, Utah’s native bees are now in a type of danger unimaginable when the old-fashioned honeybee hive became our state’s symbol.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) were first introduced to North America by settlers. Today, European honeybees are shipped around the U.S. in massive numbers to pollinate several spring crops, including almonds, apples and cherries. When these crops have finished flowering, commercial beekeepers look for pesticide-free places with flowers to stash their hives for the summer.

Agricultural pesticides put pressure on honeybee colonies, making them more vulnerable to disease and parasites. To escape pesticides and find cheap forage for their honeybees, many commercial beekeeping companies have thus been turning recently to public lands, requesting permits to park their hives for months every year on our national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.

Many people assume honeybees are harmless (or even beneficial) for our national forests. In fact, the opposite is true. Honeybees live in large colonies, with an average of 30,000 bees per hive, vastly outnumbering native bees, which are solitary or live in small colonies. Commercial honeybees outcompete native bees for pollen and nectar, which all bees require for survival and reproduction. Studies have shown that competition with honeybees makes it more difficult for native bees to find food, reproduce and raise their young.

Honeybees also carry many pathogens and parasites, including lethal diseases like deformed wing virus and black queen cell virus, both of which have been shown to infect native bees. When honeybees are introduced onto public lands, the risk of disease transmission between honeybees and native bees is high — and the deadly impacts can go both ways.

While commercial beekeepers seek a safe haven for their bees on public lands, this practice may actually enable pathogens and parasites from native bees to invade the U.S. honeybee industry, as well as destroy native pollinator populations through introduced diseases, parasites, and competition.

Bees and bumblebees are facing declines throughout the world, yet lack federal protections from the pressure of honeybees. Here in Utah, permits for honeybee hives are currently under review on the Manti-La Sal National Forest, where the once common, now rare Western bumblebee was recently discovered. Honeybees can also threaten rare plants by driving out their specialized, native pollinators while pollinating common and invasive plants instead.

Since decisions to permit honeybee hives on public lands are made by individual local land managers, now is a critical time to speak to your local district ranger or field manager about this issue. Encourage them to deny permit requests to park commercial honeybee hives on your national forests and explain the importance of protecting native pollinators and plants from invading honeybees. More information about honeybees on public lands, scientific evidence for their impacts, alternatives to their use of public lands, and contact information for Forest Service rangers is available online.

Thomas Meinzen | Grand Canyon Trust

Thomas Meinzen is a fellow with the Grand Canyon Trust. This commentary was written in partnership with the Endangered Species Coalition.