How can anyone keep bees in Wyoming?
Wyoming is a tough place to keep bees. They aren’t native here. And few feral hives survive on their own.
But it’s possible when beekeepers partner with farmers in the irrigated valleys.
John Lovell wrote:
…compared to the great region of dry desert land which produces little besides sagebrush, saltbush and cactus. A colony of bees would starve on a million acres of such range. No one has attempted to keep bees in the mountains, as the snowfall is heavier, the winters colder, and the seasons shorter than at lower elevations. While there are many wild flowers it’s doubtful if they would yield a surplus.
Honey Plants of North America, 1926
Wyoming’s climate hasn’t improved since Lovell penned those words almost 100 years ago. The climate is now drier and more extreme than ever.
It’s man and his ingenuity that makes Wyoming beekeeping possible. Mountain runoff water is transported and stored during the spring. This water irrigates crops in the lower basin areas. There, the temperature is warmer, the weather more stable, and a longer growing season exists. These irrigated lands make up a small fraction of the area. But they are vital for keeping bees here. Without this form of agriculture beekeeping is impossible.
This can be clearly seen on the Satellite map above. Those thin green ribbons are the only areas beekeeping is possible. Notice how they are confined to the creeks that flow out from the mountains. These agricultural valleys are less than a few miles wide. And a few tens of miles long.
The best beekeeping area in the state, the Wind River Basin, is located Center left on the map. I keep bees near Casper. It’s just a little green smudge center right on the map. It’s a really poor area compared to the Wind River Basin. Zoom and pan around for a closer look. It’s the best way to get a feel for Wyoming’s beekeeping environment.
About $300 million worth of ag occurs there. It’s used as a hedge to protect grazing interests from the vagaries of Wyoming’s climate and drought. Almost two thirds, or $200 million dollars worth of hay is produced. And it’s the alfalfa, clover, escaped weeds and water, from these irrigated hay fields, that makes beekeeping possible.
Beyond those thin green ribbons is where most of Wyoming’s agriculture occurs. Out of $900 million worth of agriculture, almost $600 million are produced there, mostly by grazing livestock.
Now, you know why, if you keep bees in Wyoming, you’re a bee wrangler and not a bee farmer. There isn’t much farming in Wyoming.
The statistics show Wyoming has about 65 commercial beekeepers, with about 32000 hives. About 2 million pounds of honey are produced per year. A bee farm is defined as anyone with 5 or more hives. In reality, less than a dozen commercial beekeeping families produce all that honey. For there are few hobbyist or sideline beekeepers here. Until I left commercial beekeeping and became a hobbyist, I’d only met several hobbyists. Beekeeping in Wyoming, at about $4 million, is small potatoes compared to the rest of Wyoming’s agriculture. And it’s even smaller when compared to the real beekeeping states, like California and Florida, with their hundreds of thousands of hives.
Today, the typical Wyoming beekeeper has more than two thousand hives. In November, he migrates to California for almond pollination. Then he returns, in March, to make a wholesale crop of honey off the hay fields. Wyoming’s intense solar energy, light soils, hot summer days and cold summer nights combine to produce short, but intense, honey flows during the later part of July. The alfalfa honey is light amber to water white in color. It has a delicate, spicy taste. And it granulates with a creamy consistency. It’s a premium grade table honey.
Close ties were forged between the beekeepers and ranchers, when the government developed the water resources, at the turn of the last century. Each knew how hard agriculture is in Wyoming. They experienced a mutual dependence and both benefited from the association. Landowners wanted bees on their land. And they appreciated honey as payment for the yard rent.
Today, a different situation is emerging. Much of that irrigated family farm land is now owned by billionaire investment bankers who don’t have any agriculture stake in the land. They purchased the land for more than the land could ever produce agriculturally. And many absentee landlords don’t understand the traditions. They don’t care about honeybees. Some have the typical fearful urban reaction to bees. And they don’t want them anywhere near, or on their land. Good bee yard locations, which were always scarce in Wyoming, are now much harder to find.
Wyoming’s beekeeping is intricately tied to agriculture. Which, itself, is intricately dependent on a limited water supply. The effects of a prolonged, extreme drought and global warming aren’t a positive sign that water intensive crops, like alfalfa, can continue to be grown here. Or of beekeeping, which is based on alfalfa.
Beekeeping, here, runs as a family operated business. Few, in the next generation, want to work so hard, for such a thin profit margin. Wyoming beekeepers are a greying bunch. I’m considered one of the younger guys and I’ve got grey hair.
Like much of agriculture, the family bee farm is on it’s way out. It’s being replaced by corporate farming which includes opportunity costs and insists of a competitive rate of return.
Honey’s production cost, in Wyoming, and in the USA, exceeds the world market price. So profitable wholesale production, is probably a thing of the past.
Pollination is the hope for most Wyoming beekeepers. But it’s a risky proposition. As fuel costs rise and California almond producers insist on the most populous hives, migratory beekeeping is not an easy solution.
Retailing the honey crop, inside Wyoming, is an impossibility. There’s too much honey produced for consumption by the small population.
So, what will beekeeping look like in the future? Traditional commercial operations will be much smaller. Their size will be dictated by the amount of honey that is retailed or value add to. Most commercial beekeeping will disappear. Wyoming will probably become a place for large migratory operators to drop hives, while on their way to somewhere else.
The few side liners, with a niche market, can continue to run. But, I think the future is brightest for the hobbyist. No matter what the water, land, or world market situation, there should always be enough space and enough market for a few hobbyist, each with a few hives and a love for beekeeping.
Interested in more Wyoming beekeeping? Check out:
And to be legal better check out the Wyoming Bee Laws.