Is Utah, the Beehive State, Really the Second Worst State for Keeping Bees?

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

Utah? The Beehive State? Bad at keeping bees?

That’s the reading from the grass care chain LawnLove, which released the results of its research in mid-June, ahead of National Pollinator Week, June 20-26. Only Nebraska scored 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 one — like the worst cities for grass allergies and the best cities for outdoor weddings.)

The statistics were based on data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which was only available for 40 of the 50 states. Among them, Utah ranked 36th out of 40 for honey yield, 35th in the price of honey per pound, 34th in farmers’ markets that offer honey, and 27th in number of beekeeping societies.

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

“The USDA data is mainly from commercial beekeepers, so there isn’t really any data on backyard beekeepers,” she said. “So it’s a very skewed set of data when you talk about beekeepers in Utah in general.”

Hobby beekeepers, classified as those who keep fewer than 10 hives, and secondary beekeepers, who have 250 or fewer hives, are among the 3,500 members of the Wasatch Beekeeping Association’s Facebook group. Arthur took an informal poll on the group’s page and said she heard of a member with more than 500 hives — but more than half of those who responded 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, also doesn’t collect data from backyard beekeepers, she said.

UDAF, she said, “is really more of a honeybee health organization that makes sure beekeepers are good stewards of their hives, not a nuisance to their neighbors. … They want to know if there is 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, October 30, 2021. The beehive was moved from the top of the main building of the Salt Lake City Public Library during renovations.

More than making honey

The study also placed Utah at the bottom because of its hot, arid desert environment, which the study said supported native bees, but was a poor place for honeybees. It’s true, Arthur said, that nectar flow depends on how many flowering vegetation bees can find — but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep backyard beehives.

Most of Utah’s nectar flow occurs in June, Arthur said, so honey production season is almost over.

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

The location of a beehive is also important, Arthur said. “If you live in an area where alfalfa is still planted, you get a lot more honey than where I live, in Draper, where my bees depend on plants that 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 beetle that can fly three miles from home in any direction and then come back and communicate with all the other foragers in the hive: ‘There’s a tree three miles southwest of here that’s in bloom; 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 just do it for the honey.”

In Arthur’s experience, she said, those who do it just for the honey generally don’t last long — because they’re often not interested in caring for bees in a way that allows them to thrive.

“Some people get charmed by it, and they say, ‘Oh, I can have honey,'” she said. “They go out and buy everything they need, and then they throw bees in there. Then… they call us and say, ‘I have all these problems.’ And we say, ‘Have you read a book? Have you looked at a website?’ And they’re like, ‘no.’”

Getting education about beekeeping before you get a hive, Arthur said, is “very, very important to the health of the bees — not just your bees, but all of your neighbors’ bees — because once you get a disease, it’s going to behave like spreading wildfire within a square kilometer.”

Arthur is not against people enjoying honey from local beehives. She favors it — especially when commercial honey is often bottled from numerous 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 with syrup or sugar water or anything like that.”

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

How to help the bees?

Arthur urged Utahns to focus on supporting pollinators, both honeybees and native species — which are more threatened than ever for their survival.

Take, for example, an unseen side effect of the urge, triggered by water conservation (which Arthur said she supports), to uproot lawns — and thereby plants, such as red clover, where foraging bees feed — and replace them with rocks, gravel and other pavements.

‘It’s hard to pull weeds out of rocks,’ Arthur said, ‘that’s why they use herbicides to kill them. And that is terrible for honeybee populations.”

Arthur said drought-resistant perennial flowering plants are good at conserving water and supporting bees. However, she recommended checking the label when buying such plants, especially from large garden stores, to make sure they haven’t been sprayed with neonicotinoids, which are deadly to bees. (They are referred to as “neonic” for short and, as the name implies, are chemically related 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, visit the city’s website, www.slc.gov/sustainability/local-food/beekeeping-in-salt-lake-city.) The Utah Extension Office provides resources for beekeepers (at extension.usu. edu/beekeeping), as well as 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 beehives and will launch a series of classes in August. (Check the WBA’s website for details in the coming weeks.)

If an aspiring holder is still enthusiastic, WBA offers one-on-one guidance with experienced beekeepers. “They can go online, apply for a mentor at our club, and we’ll match them,” Arthur said. “Our treasurer didn’t 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 very, very well.”

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