Grand County’s honeybees face many of the same challenges that other colonies around the country do, from parasitic mites to viruses that can decimate their numbers.
Yet even though local bee populations fell over this past winter, the outlook appears to be considerably better than it is in many other parts of the U.S., according to Jerry Shue, the county’s honeybee inspector.
“Every year, I am more optimistic about how things are going in Grand County,” he told the Grand County Council on March 18.
The county’s geographic isolation may be one thing that’s working in the bees’ favor, according to Shue.
“It’s a wonderful little island,” he said.
Over time, Shue has found a surprising number of feral honeybee colonies throughout Grand and San Juan counties. In some cases, they’re turning up in trees and crevices that are 25 miles from the nearest known beekeeper, he said.
Those discoveries are remarkable, he said, considering that most feral colonies around the country died out after the dreaded Varroa mite showed up in the 1980s.
Shue has been sending samples of his finds off to researchers at Yale University and others in academia who are studying everything from genome diversity to antibiotic-resistant genes. Closer to home, he believes that efforts to find, trap and propagate feral bees may improve the sustainability of local domestic populations.
While honeybees are not native to North America, they are important pollinators.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that bees boost domestic crop production by more than $15 billion each year.
Some crops, including almonds, are entirely dependent on bees, and the USDA estimates that bee pollination directly or indirectly produces one out of every three mouthfuls of food that an average American eats.
Yet these days, there are fewer and fewer bees to get the job done.
Over the last 60 to 70 years, the number of managed colonies around the country declined by half, from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the USDA.
In Grand County, at least, more domestic bee colonies are in the works, which should help satisfy the local appetite for honey.
Currently, 30 beekeepers are spread throughout Moab, Spanish Valley and Castle Valley; as of late last year, they managed about 97 domestic colonies in the county, according to Shue.
In the near future, someone is planning to set up two hives at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) site as part of that project’s restoration work, Shue said.
Another 10 to 15 people are waiting to propagate their own bees this year, instead of bringing them in from California, where pathogens, pests and environmental stresses have hit managed colonies and commercial beekeepers especially hard.
In contrast, there aren’t any commercial or migratory beekeeping activities in the county, beyond the Elgin district on the edge of the Emery County line.
Shue linked those activities to the spread of diseases, noting that two bee colonies brought in from elsewhere were infected with American foulbrood, a deadly spore-forming bacterium.
Both colonies near the town of Green River were ultimately destroyed, and the good news is that there are no signs of American foulbrood among colonies in Spanish Valley or Castle Valley, he said.
“Our isolation is serving us really well for our honeybees,” Shue said.
It helps that local beekeepers share the same goals of building locally-adapted, disease-resistant and sustainable populations without the use of chemicals, he said.
“We have several strains of bees that have survived without antibiotics or treatments for two or more years, which is unusual these days,” he said in a report to the county council.
Beekeepers are also on good terms with officials from the Moab Mosquito Abatement District and the Grand County Weed Department, who voiced their willingness to communicate and work with them, Shue said.
Overall interest in bee-friendly landscaping is also on the rise.
The city of Moab and Utah State University are collaborating with local conservation districts and non-profit groups on plans to build pollinator demonstration gardens around town. Several gardens should be established by some time this summer, Shue reported.
Shue’s latest report is available on the county’s website at: www.grandcountyutah.net/pdf/council/2014_03_18_packet.pdf.