Freedom of beekeeping not allowed in the Beehive State

The following op-ed was published last week in the Daily Herald.

Most of us know Utah is the Beehive State, but what few Utahns realize is that being a beekeeper in the Beehive State without the government’s permission is illegal.

You read that right. The “deseret” bees brought to this land are now contraband unless one complies with specific state laws that control the beekeeping practice.

There’s even more irony. Utah’s official state emblem is the beehive — the familiar mound-shaped hive seen on the state seal, signs and more. And state law prohibits using this type of hive, called a skep.

“A person may not house or keep bees in a hive,” the law reads, “unless the hive is equipped with movable frames to all the hive’s parts so that access to the hive can be had without difficulty.” The state bans the use of its own emblem.

Utah’s beekeeping laws date from 1892, when the Utah Beekeepers Association was formed to help combat diseases that were posing a problem. The law — enacted when Utah was still a territory of the United States — created local beekeeping inspectors who could help identify the deadly disease that can easily kill a colony of bees. Later, mandatory registration was required to enable these inspectors to locate apiaries for inspection.

But over a century later, this registration mandate still exists — in a day of social media and online groups where beekeepers connect and help one another, instead of all needing help and direction from the government. Twenty-two states do not require registration, yet these locales do not see a plague of dead bees compared to the other states that compel registration. Diseases are managed without state oversight.

Adding to the official status enjoyed by all things bee in Utah, the honeybee is Utah’s official state insect. Thousands of residents maintain colonies — some professionally to harvest honey or pollinate orchards, and others as a hobby or small enterprise. But many beekeepers, this author included, choose not to register. We are therefore illegally keeping bees in the beehive state.

Registration is not expensive; the objection is not typically financial in nature. Instead, beekeepers who are aware of this requirement and consciously choose to violate it believe it is wrong to compel us to identity ourselves and where our bees are. These insects are found in nature; they exist among us. They pollinate a significant portion of the plants that provide us food. They are gentle and fascinating creatures to observe. And we have a vested interest in keeping them healthy.

Efforts have been made to repeal this law and bring the beehive state into line with the other 22 states that do not require registration, but bureaucrats involved in the program continue to oppose these efforts. They cite the need to monitor bee health and use fear to caution what might happen without compulsory registration.

But the truth is that 2017 is not 1892. The county bee inspector program is rather ineffective. Few counties have working inspectors, there is no compensation available to fund their operations, and a few government employees in Salt Lake City cannot identify, monitor, and support the tens of thousands of hives that are scattered around the state.

The idea behind registration is that if and when disease is identified, the government can notify beekeepers in the vicinity so they can proactively treat their bees to avoid spreading the disease, as bees often come in contact with one another. But with significant noncompliance to the existing registration requirement, the government’s stated purpose of the law is undermined; there are potentially thousands of “underground” hives, either operated illegally by beekeepers or existing in nature without human oversight or awareness.

Word spreads fast these days; news of an outbreak can travel quickly through online groups and associations without relying on government oversight and involvement. Utah beekeepers can understand and manage bee health through these networks and other resources that exist.

We beekeepers have every incentive to do so; buying a new colony of bees to replace a dead one costs over $100. As a beekeeper myself, I have spent significant time learning on my own, and know other beekeepers in my community, or through social media, who I could ask for support, rather than a government employee.

Utah’s hardworking pioneers who turned a desert into deseret worked with one another in pursuit of a common goal. We should honor their recognition of the honeybee as a symbol for our industry and community strength by repealing the compulsory registration law and allowing us beekeepers to work together freely in pursuit of keeping our bees health and happy.