After a Hard Winter, Honey Bees Are Back

Symbolic odes to the honey bee are all over Utah. It’s on the state flag. Honey bees are the State Insect. It’s even in “Deseret,” a heavily saturated word that means “honey bee,” according to the doctrine of the state’s dominant religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Utah beekeeping associations are thousands of members strong. Utah’s obsessed with the honey bee. 

Meanwhile, Utah suffered greater honey beehive losses in winter than any other state, according to the latest data (winter 2019–2020). Looking at the big picture, beekeepers across the United States lost 43.7% of their honey bee colonies from April 2019 to April 2020, according to surveys by the non-profit Bee Informed Partnership (BIP). This is the second-highest loss since the survey began in 2006. With losses up, and fewer productive hives, honey production was down in 2020. Oh also, a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found honey production dropped 6% in 2020 from 2019. 

Deseret Hive Supply sells flavored honey and honey-based products

“Our winters are not consistent—some have no snow, some see a ton of moisture—and that can make it hard to prepare,” said beekeeper Kyla Bachman, who helps run the family business Deseret Hive Supply in Ogden. “So Utah colony loss isn’t necessarily due to mites or poor management or anything like that. It can be due to the moisture and food availability and fluctuating winters.”

Utah beekeepers might also be reporting more than any other states, adds Kyla’s father-in-law Vic. “It might look somewhat artificially high compared to other states because every registered beekeeper here is really good about reporting,” he says. He started beekeeping before it was cool—popularized by various “save the bees” campaigns. (He flipped the messaging for his beekeeping supply store with the motto “save the humans.”)

honey bees for sale to begin beekeeping
Honey bee hive at Deseret Hive Supply, Ogden

Winter isn’t the only threat wiping out honey bee colonies. Beekeepers dread the varroa mite. “It’s actually the biggest threat that honey bees have ever had,” says Vic. “It’s what basically caused colony collapse disorder. [Varorra mites] appeared in about 2006 and started wiping out colonies worldwide.” 

2019–2020 also saw the highest summer losses ever reported by the BIP survey, and the varroa mite is likely a big part of what’s driving that summertime colony loss.

“Basically, the varroa mite is to a honey bee what a tick is to us. It gets underneath their glands and eats the fat of the stomach of the honey bees,” says Kyla. The Bachmans keep a varroa mite model in their Ogden shop. The mites look like tiny red spots on the body of an otherwise healthy-looking honey bee. The varroa mite also spreads diseases and weakens the honey bee’s immune system. 

Luckily, honey bees can bounce back even after heavy losses, as long as the keeper is left with one strong, healthy hive. “We can rebuild and build back up by splitting,” says Kyla. To split a hive, keepers take a portion of  bees from one hive and put them in a new hive with a new queen bee. “We split one hive into two then three, and they propagate pretty quickly.”

In an effort to bolster local bee populations, the Utah State Legislature recently passed a bill that creates a three-year pollinator pilot program to support public education and outreach and fund the propagation of pollinator-friendly native plants.

Local honey bee populations also got a boost from the pandemic. “People were at home, didn’t have things to do, and they want to be self-sufficient,” says Vic. “And hobbyists help (the bee population) because they usually keep them in the backyard. They’re not shipping them all over the country to pollinate them.”  Commercial beekeepers often ship colonies out of state to pollinate crops elsewhere. 

In addition to licensed professional and commercial beekeepers, Vic says Utah is home to roughly 800 registered beekeeping hobbyists. 

You Too Can Keep the Bees

Kyla started keeping her own honey bee hives six years ago. She started by taking the beekeeping classes Vic and his wife Anessa offer at their store. The introductory class breaks down all of the knowledge and supplies you’ll need to become a fledgling beekeeper. They also offer classes on managing the hives during winter and on harvesting honey—which is the goal, right? 

Assortment of beekeeping hive boxes at Deseret Hive Supply
Assortment of hive boxes at Deseret Hive Supply

That year, the store had an extra package leftover and gave it to Kyla. A package contains a few pounds of bees—about 10,000 of them—and a single mated queen bee. Those bees are then installed in a hive. Beginning beekeepers can get started with a single nucleus hive—a cardboard box with five frames inside that can be transferred to a permanent hive. There are also other ways of getting your first hive… 

Kyla says she started small, but her operation didn’t stay that way for long. “I had one hive, and then we got a call from this house that was for sale, and they needed the bees removed from the house.” Kyla cut out the hive that had integrated into the home’s balcony and removed it, and it became her second hive. 

That method isn’t recommended for beginners. “Cutouts are pretty difficult,” says Vic, who’s had to cut out hives as long as 12 feet. “We’ve had people cut through powerlines, water lines; when you’re cutting into people’s houses, you need to know what you’re doing.”

After those first two hives, Kyla couldn’t stop. This past year, she was up to 25 hives. “It’s addictive,” she says.

While some hobbyists have up to 100 hives, it’s not for everyone. 

“You got to figure out whether it’s a hobby or it’s a job, you know?” says Vic. “So, I tell people to start out with a couple of hives. Don’t get to the point where it’s too busy and you don’t enjoy it anymore. Some people can handle five. Some people can handle two. Some can handle 20 or 30.” 

A hobby is exactly how it started for Vic, as well. “I bought a couple of hives. I had no clue how to be a beekeeper. I just bought them, and I just basically fell in love with bees. I mean, they’re just amazing.” 

But even in the Beehive State, he says there are still a lot of misconceptions people have about honey bees. One common misunderstanding is the idea that taking honey from the hive hurts the bees. “If you’re a good beekeeper, your hives should have an excess amount of honey,” says Kyla. A medium-sized hive could have more than 100 pounds of extra honey come October when keepers “put their bees to bed” for winter, leaving the bees plenty to eat until spring. 

While people outside the beekeeping world worry about stings, Kyla considers beekeeping a safe enough hobby to introduce to her 4-year-old daughter. “She has a full beekeeping suit,” says Kyla. “She helps me hold the frames and helps me find the queens. She enjoys it. She’ll last about 20 minutes before she gets distracted.” (Pretty good for a 4-year-old.) 

4-year-old girl takes up beekeeping at Deseret Hive Supply
Beekeeping 4-year-old helps with mom’s Honey bee hives
(Photo courtesy: Kyla Bachman, Deseret Hive Supply)

“We have a lot of young beekeepers,” says Vic. The youngest person to get started with their classes and their own hive was just 7 years old. 

For aspiring beekeepers, now is the time to get started. “The bees arrive in April,” says Vic. “Just in time to take a few classes first.” But, be careful, it could become more than a hobby. “They’re easy to fall in love with.” 

Deseret Hive Supply
1516 Washington Blvd., Ogden

Want more bees? Read Salt Lake magazine’s story about beekeeping at the University of Utah. While you’re here, take a look at the latest print issue of Salt Lake magazine.

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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