For Immediate Release
Legal Petition Urges U.S. Forest Service to Protect Native Bees, Stop Rubber-Stamping Commercial Beehives on Federal Lands
More than 900 apiaries housing millions of honeybees have been approved on Colorado Plateau since 2009.
WASHINGTON - Conservation groups filed a formal legal petition today urging the U.S. Forest Service to stop allowing the placement of hundreds of commercial honeybee hives on national forest lands without proper environmental review.
Honeybees, which are not native to the United States, are important agricultural crop pollinators but have been shown to transmit diseases to native bees. They can also outcompete native bees for pollen and nectar, their only source of food.
Yet, over the past decade, the Forest Service has approved permits for at least 900 hives, which could house up to 56 million honeybees on Forest Service lands on the Colorado Plateau alone. A request is pending for an additional 4,900 hives on just one national forest in Utah.
Today's administrative petition urges the Forest Service to end the practice of labeling the apiaries as minor special uses, which the agency can invoke to bypass the mandatory environmental review needed to properly consider the impacts of apiary permits.
"Stress on native bees is inevitable when an apiary with dozens of hives, each hive housing 10,000 to 60,000 honeybees, is parked on a national forest," said Mary O’Brien, Utah forest programs director and botanist with the Grand Canyon Trust. "Scientists have documented adverse outcomes for native bees over and over, but it's 'out of sight, out of mind' to the Forest Service. This is how we lose species."
A single honeybee apiary of 40 hives consumes enough pollen in one month to feed more than 1.3 million native bees. Many beekeepers aim to have 80 or more hives in an apiary.
Just last month scientists revealed that the western bumblebee has experienced a 93% decline in the past 20 years. Many of the approximately 3,600 species of native bees in the United States are in decline.
Native bees are also important pollinators in agricultural areas and are essential in natural areas. With many native bee species already in decline, competition from commercial honeybees presents a significant threat. Native bees are also imperiled by climate change, pesticides, habitat loss and disease.
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"The Forest Service must stop recklessly commercializing public lands that provide essential habitat to thousands of rare native bee species, many of which live nowhere else on Earth," said Lori Ann Burd, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's environmental health program. "While I’m deeply sympathetic to the plight of honeybee keepers whose bees and livelihoods are imperiled by pesticides, we can’t let commercial honeybees threaten the continued existence of rare and imperiled native bees."
Honeybees were introduced to the United States from Europe centuries ago and are now ubiquitous in crop pollination and for honey production. However, due to heavy pesticide use and a lack of suitable food resources, beekeepers are increasingly seeking pesticide-free forage areas to place apiaries, including Forest Service lands.
In addition to directly jeopardizing native pollinators, the presence of honeybees on national forests may also harm rare and threatened plants that depend on specialized native pollinators.
"We have an incredible diversity of native plants that have evolved alongside their native pollinators and need their native pollinators to thrive and survive," said Tony Frates, conservation co-chair of the Utah Native Plant Society. "Introducing vast numbers of honeybees on to our public lands can pose a grave threat to these plants, and their pollinators, and we hope the Forest Service will take this petition seriously so that these threats can be properly addressed."
Utah is a major biodiversity hotspot for native bees, hosting about a quarter of all species found in the United States. National forests on the Colorado Plateau serve as important refuges for them. As Forest Service lands in this region, and across the country, experience increased pressure to allow honeybees to pasture, concerns over impacts to native flora and fauna have increased.
"This petition is asking for simple, common-sense protections for essential pollinators," said Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist for the Xerces Society. "Allowing nonnative animals to forage broadly across the landscape without considering potential impacts to our native plants and animals is not sound land management given the existing evidence that shows the effects that honeybees can have on our native bees. Solutions that help beekeepers must not further endanger the already struggling native bees on which our national forests depend."
Native bee declines are part of a larger crisis faced by insect populations. Studies from all continents show declines in the diversity, abundance and biomass of insects.
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