Kelly McGettigan and Chris Michaud are new beekeepers in Castle Valley. [Courtesy photo]

Grand County residents have been put on notice to keep an eye out for swarming honey bees—a roiling mass of bees emerging from their hive into the air and hovering, expanding, perhaps intimidating, but mostly harmless.

“They’re totally focused on their own survival,” said Jerry Shue, Grand County’s honey bee inspector. “This is one of the wonders of nature. You’ll get to see it if you’re lucky.”

Shue said he expects the first swarms in the next week or two, and like a proud father, wants people to know that what they may be so lucky to see is not only a fascinating natural process of honey bee reproduction, it’s a sign of something promising: healthy honey bees in Grand County.

The health and well-being of honey bees on a national level has seemed dire since late 2006, when beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The bees weren’t dead, they were just gone without a trace—leaving behind a puzzle that has a label, but no easy answers.

“Bee scientists say there’s no single explanation for colony collapse disorder (CCD],” Shue said. “It’s just everything that bees are getting smacked up against these days. Invasive mites, viruses, pesticides, lack of forage as we get rid of wildflowers and native plants.”

It’s a hard time to be a honey bee, with CCD added to other serious health threats like American foulbrood—a spore-forming bacteria that germinate in the gut of the bee larva. Another killer, varroa mites, which feed on the bee’s bodily fluids, nearly wiped out the wild honey bee population when the mite was introduced to the U.S. in the mid- to late ‘80s and continues to be a serious problem, Shue said.

The approximately 97 bee colonies in Grand County are typical of colonies throughout the country in that they show evidence of varroa mites, viruses, and poor queens, Shue said in a report to the County Council March 18. But, “this winter, we lost less than 20 percent of our bees, which is considerably better than what you see in the rest of the nation,” he said.

Shue said the number of wild honey bees he is finding in both Grand and San Juan Counties is “quite exceptional.”

“Our isolation is serving us really well,” he said.

The national honey bee decline has been made worse, in large part, by the practice of migratory, commercial honey bee renting. Commercial beekeepers move about 1.4 million colonies, according to the USDA, across the country, renting their bees for crop pollination. These large-scale bee operations are necessary for pollinating large-scale crops.

“Honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a USDA press release dated February 2014.

Unfortunately, just like with humans on airplanes, moving bees around also spreads their diseases and disorders to other parts of the country. Having no large-scale agriculture industry closer than Green River’s melon crops gives Grand County honey bees—both domestic and wild—an advantage.

“We have this wonderful little island here that allows us to make some progress with the bees,” Shue said.

For example, unlike almost everywhere else in Utah, there is no American foulbrood in Grand County hives, due in part to an inspection program that identifies and eliminates diseased hives rather than trying to treat the bees with antibiotics, Shue said.

“You can treat with antibiotics and make foulbrood seem to disappear, but the spores can still be on the equipment and if you stop using the drug, the problem comes back,” Shue said.

Foulbrood spores can survive on beekeeping equipment for decades and spread throughout a community of beekeepers.

While beekeepers may mourn the loss of a diseased colony, most beekeepers in Grand County seem to have a common goal.

“We’re all interested in locally adapted, disease-resistant, mite-resistant, sustainable bees that live year after year without being propped up with chemicals and everybody is working toward that end,” Shue said.

Local beekeepers have formed a loose-knit network to share information through their Facebook page MoaBees and periodic meetings and bee-yard sessions.

“Every beekeeper has their own way of doing things,” said Kyle Bailey, a member of Moab City Council who, with his wife Carrie, has been keeping bees for about six years. “So everybody has an idea, everybody is experimenting.”

Bailey said the beekeepers would like to keep the populations local, rather than depending on getting packaged bees from outside the community.

County adminstrator Ruth Dillon, and her husband, Tom, are eagerly awaiting local bees to restart a colony after losing their bees to starvation this past winter.

“We’re waiting to get bees that are local bees,” Tom Dillon said. “They’re acclimated to here and they’re doing well here and that’s what we prefer.”

The Dillons began beekeeping after a colony of wild bees swarmed and clustered on a tree in their yard several years ago. Local beekeepers know, because of the number of wild bees found in the county, that honey bees can adapt to and survive in the southeastern Utah desert.

“Bees are very adaptable, as we know from all the wild bees that we’re finding in surprisingly remote places, like 25 miles from any known beekeeper or settlement,” Shue said. “Finding, trapping and propagating some of these feral bees may contribute to the sustainability of our local domestic bees.”

The practice of propagating colonies from the hardiest surviving local stock “is proving, all around the country, to be the best strategy for small beekeepers to keep their bees alive,” Shue said.

Grand County’s hardy bees may provide useful information that will help scientists and beekeepers on a national level better their understanding of honey bee health.

“I have been sending bee samples to researchers at Yale and the Universities of Delaware and Washington, who are looking at everything from genome diversity to gut microflora to antibiotic resistance genes,” Shue said.

The sustainability of the County’s domestic bees depends on more than just wild bees and beekeepers. As Bailey put it, “It takes a village to raise a bee.”

“The connection between bees and locals goes beyond any ideologies,” Shue said. “Every gardener in the county and every person who sprays a pesticide or herbicide is part of the system, directly effecting the health of the pollinating insects that make our gardens bloom and produce much of the food we put on our table.”

As people in Grand County are becoming more aware of the link between human behavior, honey bee health, and our food supply, they’re starting to make small changes.

“Bob Phillips, of the mosquito abatement district, and Tim Higgs, of the weed department, have both expressed a willingness to communicate and work with beekeepers for the health of the bees,” Shue said.

This spring, various nonprofit organizations, the city and USU will be collaborating on creating pollinator demonstration-gardens for public awareness and education.

For individual gardeners who must use chemical sprays, Shue recommends not spraying any plants that are in bloom.

“The very first thing is reading the label thoroughly to know when and how you should be using the product,” Shue said. “In many cases if you use it in the late evening, when the bees are not flying, it will dry by morning and it’s less risky.

“It’s a whole paradigm to consider,” Shue said. “I guess that’s what I like about this whole thing. It pulls us all into this system and educates us. They’re our little, subtle educators, the bees.”

Grand County far above national average in honey-bee health

Anyone who spots a swarm this season is encouraged to call his or her neighborhood beekeeper, or Jerry Shue at 435-260-8581

“We’re all interested in locally adapted, disease-resistant, mite-resistant, sustainable bees that live year after year without being propped up with chemicals and everybody is working toward that end.”