Policy fight looms as agencies treat honeybee -- a 17th-century import -- as exotic invader

A bitter feud between beekeepers and federal land managers is coming to a head as the Obama administration prepares plans for stemming a steep decline in pollinators.

Under President Obama's June executive order, federal agencies must submit reports to the White House by Dec. 20 defining how they will address insects and animals that spread pollen from plant to plant. The President's Pollinator Task Force, headed by the Agriculture Department and U.S. EPA, will incorporate those reports into a federal strategy on pollinator protection (Greenwire, June 20).

But commercial beekeepers say some land managers are intent on keeping out one of the most important pollinators -- and the only one that makes money while doing so: the European honeybee.

Apis mellifera, which arrived in what's now the United States in the early 17th century, can compete with native bumblebees and transmit pathogens like the deformed wing virus, though the research is still developing on the issue. It also likes to forage on sweet clover, an invasive plant species that allows the bee to produce the popular clover honey.

This rankles the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other agencies whose missions are to protect native species. Their aversion to honeybees, and their foods of choice, has made it difficult for beekeepers to get access to public lands, said Randy Verhoek, president of the American Honey Producers Association.

Access varies from region to region and land manager to land manager, Verhoek said. He hopes the president's memorandum will be favorable to beekeepers when the task force releases its report early next year.

"It seems to be getting worse; it seems to be more regional," he said. "We need a national, federal policy and guidelines; those guidelines need to be passed down to the local agencies, [so] we don't have a whole bunch of individuals making individual decisions."

The issue of access is just as important to beekeepers as the more visible debate over neonicotinoids, insecticides that are linked to declining bee health, Verhoek said.

Honeybees are big business in the United States. Last year's honey production was valued at $317 million by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In addition, beekeepers carry their hives around the country in the early months of the year to help growers spread pollen in fields and maximize production. Gross revenues from pollination in 2012 were about $655.6 million, according to NASS.

The United States has lost more than 50 percent of its managed honeybee colonies over the past 10 years to a little-understood phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, according to the Pollinator Partnership. Another pollinator, the monarch butterfly, has seen its population decline by 90 percent in recent years.

Loss of forage, parasites like the Varroa mite and pesticides have been linked to colony collapse disorder.

Bees, and their hive owners, are nomadic by nature. Right now, most bees are buzzing around the Gulf Coast states, the Carolinas and Georgia. Another large group spends its winter in California. There are also more bees finding refuge from the cold in indoor facilities in Idaho and Utah.


Come the end of January or February, most of the commercially managed bee hives are trucked over to California's almond groves. After the almond trees bloom, a portion of the hives will stay in California to pollinate other crops. Some move north to Oregon and Washington, while a separate group will travel up the East Coast, pollinating apple trees in New York, blueberries in Maine or pumpkins in Pennsylvania.

After the pollination season, beekeepers bring the hives back to their home base, raise new queens to lead separate colonies and nurse the colonies to health.

Many bees are taken to North Dakota -- the top honey-producing state -- or elsewhere in the Midwest, where they start making the sweet stuff through the summer. This is where sweet clover, the honeybee's preferred food, is found in pastures over thousands of acres.

Inconsistent goals

A summit last month on forage and bee nutrition sought to promote discussion on the availability of blooms for bees to feed on, and bridge the gap between honeybee keepers and public lands.

One panel, titled "Providing Access to Honey Bees on Federally Managed Lands -- Opportunities and Challenges," allowed representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Defense, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the Park Service to present their preliminary plans for pollinators.

The presentations were "disheartening," Christi Heintz and Meg Ribotto of Project Apis m., a California-based project created to fund and direct research on honeybee health, wrote in a post on the American Beekeeping Federation's website.

"The Department of Defense, manager of huge acreage in the US, was a no-show. The National Park Service, understandably, wants to keep its lands pristine and would only consider 'manipulated' or urban areas as suitable for bees. Urban areas, of course, are not suitable for commercially managed bees. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service will consider apiary locations on a case-by-case basis, but 85 percent of BLM offices surveyed didn't know whether or not they even provided apiary permits," they wrote. An apiary is a place where beehives are kept.

Given the Park Service's mandate to protect native wildlife, there's not much wiggle room for expanding habitat for a species that is exotic, albeit a long-standing resident alien. The most likely areas are places like national historical parks -- battlefields, historical homes and other landmarks -- where wildlife is rare.

"I'm looking at a few battlefields, and those battlefields are only a few hundred acres in size," said Elaine Leslie, chief of the Biological Resource Management Division at the Park Service. "I can't imagine more than several hundred acres."

Inconsistency in management goals is an issue, Leslie said, in an echo of the concerns expressed by the Honey Producers Association's Verhoek. Although a national strategy will help, agency policies and enforcement and education will need to come first.

"That is largely what centralized offices such as mine attempt to implement -- not always an easy task," Leslie said in an email.

Fish and Wildlife Service representatives said that some wildlife refuges do allow apiaries, but a refuge's discretion on whether to issue a special-use permit -- for anything from bicycling to backpacking -- rests with refuge management.

A number of policies authorized by the Refuge Administration Act help guide the issuance of special-use permits and allow for consistency in the review process across the refuge system, said Cindy Hall, FWS's national coordinator for integrated pest management.

There are still unknowns on how honeybees and native bees compete, she said, and more research is needed to guide refuge managers.

As for BLM, there are 60 apiary permits throughout the system, said Carol Spurrier, a BLM rangeland ecologist. Most are in California and Arizona.

"It's not a hugely popular or requested activity," Spurrier said.

Typically, BLM lands are at low elevations. The flowering of nectar plants happens around the same time that most commercial honeybees are in California. Many plants on BLM lands have gone to seed by the time bees finish their tour of the almond orchards and other crop fields.

Most of BLM's efforts in the pollinator strategy are likely to come from the planting of native seeds as part of post-fire rehabilitation, a source of pollen for both native pollinators and honeybees.

"If we have more enhancements on the native side, it will be better for managed bees also," Spurrier said.

Is conflict overblown?

Federal lands commitments for beekeeping will likely come out of acres managed by BLM and the Forest Service, areas that have traditionally served both conservation and commercial uses, notably drilling and logging, said Mace Vaughan, co-director of the pollinator program at the Xerces Society, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wild pollinators.

Overall, Vaughan said, there needs to be an evaluation to avoid competition between natives and European bees.

The Xerces Society's focus on native invertebrates, and their perceived influence in the administration, irritates Verhoek and other honeybee supporters. The group has a "cozy relationship" with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said Verhoek, consulting the agency's policies on pollinators.

NRCS is not a public lands agency. It encourages private landowners, farmers and ranchers, to implement conservation practices. Yet with the guidance of the Xerces Society, it has recommended that landowners plant expensive native seeds over sweet clover, Verhoek said.

NRCS has awarded $865,326 in grants to the Xerces Society since 2006, according to

The conflict between beekeepers and native pollinator protection is misleading, said Vaughan, who has a background in beekeeping.

Ninety-five percent of the concerns over native bee health overlap with those of honeybees, he said. While Xerces may not advocate for more public lands access to beekeepers, he said, they share concerns over declining forage, pesticide exposure and working with private landowners.

NRCS at the state level works with state agencies to finalize recommended plant lists to landowners, Vaughan said.

"If the state agencies don't want sweet clover, NRCS is going to respect that," he said.

Xerces promotes diversity in seeds to feed bees, not a rejection of sweet clover, Vaughan added. That means planting native flowers that encourage pollen diversity, which could help buffer the negative effects of pesticide exposure, according to recent research. It also means planting inexpensive covers like buckwheat, canola and alfalfa, species that provide a role similar to that of sweet clover, but without issues of invasiveness.

"We [don't have] an anti-honeybee agenda," Vaughan said. "I think there's significant confusion over that."

Twitter: @TiffanyStecker | Email:

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