Honey bees heavy with pollen and nectar foraged from wildflowers on Utah’s Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest collide with tall grass and tumble to the ground. They are attempting to land alongside a hive, and I watch as they struggle to stand, fly into the box, and disgorge nectar to be made into honey.
The pollinators belong to a 96-hive apiary, trucked here to Logan Canyon for the summer to rest and rebuild their population, replenishing bees lost to disease and pesticides after months pollinating California’s almond groves. By Labor Day, the yard could house 5 million domesticated pollinators.
The honey bees are guests among about 300 native bee species in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache, including metallic green sweat bees and iridescent blue mason bees, that comb meadows rich with indigo delphinium, yellow daisies, and pumpkin-colored Indian paintbrush. Darren Cox, who owns the apiary, says the forest’s mountain snowberry shrubs make the best-tasting honey.
Cox, in a white nylon suit, elbow-length gloves and helmet covered with a veil, puffs smoke into a dove gray hive and pries out a frame coated with honey. He scrapes the viscous liquid into a paper cup.
“It’s a good flower year,” he says, handing me the honey, which he sells at airports and high-end department stores. He pulls off a glove, plunges a finger into the honeycomb and lifts it under his mask and into his mouth. “That’s pretty good,” he says. “My mom named this honey snowberry — it’s our best seller.”
The cluster of honey bee colonies in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is among thousands of hives belonging to 112 apiaries currently permitted in national forests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The problem, scientists and environmentalists argue, is that these hives are being permitted on public lands with almost no environmental review and despite concern about the ecological impact that industrial-sized apiaries containing non-native, domesticated honey bees can have on local wild bee populations.
The 4,000 wild bee species in the United States have evolved over millions of years to pollinate plants endemic to biodiverse regions; studies show they consume up to 95 percent of local available pollen. The specialized foragers have already suffered steep declines in part due to climate change, pesticide use, disease, and habitat loss. Nearly 40 federally listed threatened or endangered species of bees, butterflies, and flower flies depend on national forest land for their survival. Now, in areas that were once refuges for these species and others, native bees increasingly face competition from millions of domesticated honey bees ferried to public lands between pollinating seasons. Demand for apiary permits on America’s public lands is growing exponentially as development and row crops devour private land migratory beekeepers once relied upon in the summer.
According to an analysis of thousands of documents obtained by conservation groups under the Freedom of Information Act, public land managers permitted 946 hives across five national forests in Utah and Arizona in 2020. With each hive containing up to 60,000 pollinators, such agreements collectively allow up to 56.8 million honey bees on the Colorado Plateau alone. Hives have also been approved in national forests in North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Idaho, California, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, New York, and Vermont. The Bureau of Land Management has also approved permits for thousands of hives on its lands in Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.
“Honey bees are super-foraging machines and they are literally taking the pollen out of the mouths of other bees and other pollinators,” said Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist specializing in bees and an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. “They have huge extraction efficiency — with the waggle dance and how quickly they can mobilize — and they can very quickly take down the standing stock of pollen and nectar.”
About half of 72 studies addressing competition between managed bees and wild bees analyzed in a 2017 literature review found managed bees negatively impacted native pollinators by consuming limited floral resources. Of 41 studies that looked at the potential effects of managed bees on wild bees through changes in plant communities, 36 percent reported negative impacts and 36 percent positive results, with the remainder finding mixed or no impacts. None of the experiments were conducted with the number of hives currently being permitted on federal lands.
Some bee experts argue that no amount of honey bee hives is safe on public lands. A 2016 study published in the journal Conservation Letters found a single honey bee hive extracts enough pollen in one month to rear 33,000 native bees. If this figure is multiplied across apiaries with 100 hives, such as what is permitted in some national forests, entomologists say it could imperil the ability of wild pollinators to sustain their populations.
“Who doesn’t have an advocate in this is the native bee — there’s no money in it,” said Jim Cane, a retired USDA bee scientist and coauthor of the 2016 research.
In July, conservationists filed a petition with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, asking that federal agencies require detailed environmental studies for apiary requests and that those studies document potential impacts on native wildlife and plants. These applications currently elicit as much scrutiny as those to mow a lawn at a district office, or to host a “motorcycle enduro ride on existing roads,” according to proposed rules published in the Federal Register.
But as scientists study and conservationists debate the ecological impact of these honey bee introductions, commercial apiarists say they have no choice but to use public land.
“I lose yards every year because a subdivision is going up,” said Cox, a fourth-generation beekeeper who parks 592 of his 5,700 hives on national forests northeast of Salt Lake City each summer.
“We are running out of land,” he added. “We’ve reached the carrying capacity for managed bee hives in the U.S. — without access to public lands our livestock could be in peril.”
The pollinator habitat crunch carries long-term implications for the U.S. food supply. Honey bees are responsible for one in every three bites of food Americans consume and contribute $15 billion annually to the value of the nation’s crop production. Millions of bee colonies crisscross the country each year on semi-tractor-trailers to pollinate cranberries, melons, broccoli, blueberries, and cherries, as well as to produce honey.
The growing interdependence between the nation’s food security and managed pollinators comes amid a double-digit decline in honey bee populations. Commercial beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies from April 2019 to this past April, with reductions in the summer of 2019 the highest ever recorded. At the same time, the proportion of crops dependent on pollinators is accelerating. Beekeepers are being forced to begin each season with double the amount of hives in anticipation of harrowing losses. The mounting number of colonies managed by the nation’s 1,600 or so commercial beekeepers would require about 158 million acres of summer forage, an area greater than Montana and Minnesota combined.
“We are literally talking about where would we keep 2.5 million honey bee colonies, each with 40,000 to 50,000 individual honey bees,” said Clint Otto, a Jamestown, North Dakota-based research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who studies pollinator habitats.
Private farm land in the northern Great Plains that generations of beekeepers relied upon for summer forage is being converted to wheat, corn, and soybeans, much of it for biofuels. Farmers previously set aside such ground in exchange for subsidies provided by the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Acreage enrolled in the initiative shrunk by 30 percent in the last decade to 22 million acres due to reductions in federal funding and because high commodity prices for corn and soybeans made cultivating crops more profitable. The drop-off prompted renewed interest in housing hives on public lands in the West.
“We are proposing to put as many apiary sites as possible across different Utah National Forests,” wrote Brian Burkett, a manager at South Dakota-based Adee Honey Farms, in a 2017 application to the U.S. Forest Service to house 9,000 hives in at least five national forests. “We are desperately trying to get out of pesticide areas due to the loss of our bees.”
The application and others included in the cache of documents released under the FOIA — obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust — show that federal land managers are grappling with how to handle such unprecedented requests. Without a nationwide policy governing apiary size, and with scientific uncertainty over the impact of these introductions on native species, each district is left to decide whether millions of honey bees endanger local ecosystems.
Officials determined in the 1980s that apiaries only need a “categorical exclusion” — a designation that calls for little or no analysis and public notice. At that time, less was known about native bees and how they interact with honey bees.
Studying pollinators and how they interact in the wild is time consuming, expensive, and tedious. Scientists agree more analysis is needed to better understand if honey bees’ voracious appetites strip the land of food for native bees; if pollinators can transmit diseases and parasites to one another; and if honey bees’ preference for invasive plants will alter ecosystems.
Researchers are working on two projects in Utah they hope will answer these questions.
Adee Honey Farms, the nation’s largest private beekeeper, contributed 60 colonies toward a four-year project in the Manti-la Sal National Forest designed by the Forest Service and Brigham Young University to determine honey bees’ impacts on native bee populations. Manti-la Sal managers wrote on the forest’s website that the results, expected this year, could “serve as a model” for other districts. The service’s Intermountain region, where Adee still wants to summer its bees, denied interview requests for this article.
Scientists at a USDA native bee lab in Logan are searching for answers to how pollinators interact at 7,500 feet in Utah’s Strawberry Valley. Here, quaking aspen and towering pinyon pines tremble in a summer breeze alongside 48 buzzing honey bee hives and eight native bumble bee colonies housed in plastic crates. Snowberry bushes, goldenrod, and horsemint — a nutritious mix that makes for healthy bees and honey that doesn’t granulate — surround the site on a cattle ranch. A control site hosting only native bees is located in a national forest in the region.
Back in the lab, scientists will identify pollen removed from the honey bee and bumble bee hives at the Strawberry Valley site. This information will help pinpoint the flowers each species visit, said Diana Cox-Foster, the lab’s research leader.
To gain insight into native bee activity, Cox-Foster and her colleagues will use Dixie-Cup-shaped “bee bowls” and nets to capture endemic species and cameras to study foraging rates. The data will help scientists quantify forage needed by different species, gain insight into the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and determine if pathogens move between species. It will also provide information on whether honey bees compete with wild bees for food.
The multi-year study, funded by Project Apis m., a nonprofit funded in part by beekeepers, Costco, and The National Honey Board, was “politically hot enough that we needed to have stakeholder approval across groups,” Cox-Foster said, including from the American Honey Bee Producers, the American Beekeeping Association, the Forest Service, and Xerces. It began this spring.
“We know competition happens, but we don’t know how intense it is, how much it affects native bees, and how much it varies from year to year,” said Vincent Tepedino, an entomologist who specializes in bee behavior, ecology, and rare plant pollination who worked at the USDA bee lab in Logan for 26 years.
Standing in a 2-acre garden behind the bee lab, Tepedino and Cane pointed out how honey bees from hives in suburban back yards overtook flowers carefully tended by scientists in the lab’s garden.
The scientists point out the honey bees — the insects with orange bands on their abdomens — that were flying from one lavender Phacelia flower to another. Several wild bee species, including a gray-striped ground-nesting mining bee and a furry bumble bee, vied for space on the spiky blooms.
“There are no feral honey bees in Utah — the winters are too long and cold,” Cane said. “This is essentially the most intact native bee fauna in the U.S. It’s worth protecting.”