Wyoming Bees

How can anyone keep bees in Wyoming?

The Idea

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.

The Details

Situation

Native ground. Beautiful, but deadly barren for honeybees.

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.

Agriculture

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.


View Larger Map

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. :-)

Beekeeping Today

Wyoming alfalfa fields.

Wyoming alfalfa fields.

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.

Beekeeping Tomorrow

Bees working distant alfalfa fields.

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.

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75 Responses

  1. Jay Muse says:

    I live about 7 miles East of Hawk Springs. I don’t see many flowering plants here, and the agriculture close by is all wheat. I have a pond that stays full all year long (from our well). I have approximately 60 extra acres of DRY pasture land I could use for planting something bees could feed from…..I guess my question is, is there a plant that is perennial that I could plant in my extra acres that could sustain a couple of hives? Sunflowers? I don’t use that 60 acres for anything, and since I’ve always wanted to keep a few bees, I’m thinking my ’42 2N that can probably handle tilling that many acres. I’ve seen a lot of sunflowers growing closer to Cheyenne on the prairie, which does not seem much different than my land. Is this a good food source for my bees? We have a small garden now….is there something I could plant and extend my garden out to help with my bee’s getting enough food? I’m planning on getting in the late spring 2014. Thanks very much for your help.

    • -dm says:

      Hi Jay

      In the 60′s and 70′s I worked commercial bees out of Lingle, Wy. And we had beeyards in the Hawk Springs area. So, I pulled up Google maps to see if it was anything like I remembered. And it’s pretty much the same with a few more circles than back then.

      We kept bees in the drainage and alfalfa areas around Hawk Springs Reservoir and in the Wyoming and Nebraska alfalfa to the NE of you.

      In your area, in a wet year, very short, but abundant yellow sweet clover would often produce a surprising surplus. But as intense as the flow was, it would quickly dry up. So the bees were always placed where they could get water, the early flow, and work alfalfa later.

      On sandier ground a very intense and surprising flow would occasionally be obtained from cleome. The honey was water white, sweet, mild and would burn going down like a shot of whiskey. Very unusual.

      But keeping bees year round on the upper benches is tough because the bees need more nutritional variability than is commonly available, particularly in the early spring and late fall. I’m not sure what to plant that would fulfill those needs.

      I would suggest you give it a try. Don’t invest too much in it. Maybe try a top bar hive or two.

      If it doesn’t work out at home, try moving them near a confluence of alfalfa and natural drainages.

      Regards -dm

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  3. Christy Kroeker says:

    I live just outside of Casper on the river and am going to start raising bees this spring. We definitely have some flowering plants in the yard and nearby, but I’m wanting to plant more plants and trees in my yard to feed the bees. Do you have any suggestions of plants/trees that can grow here (I have some irrigation) and would be good for the bees. I want to make sure that the bees have plenty of flowers through the whole season. I’m worried that right now the flowers might come and go and not last through the whole season. I’m planning on starting with one top bar hive this year, but increasing to 2-3 once I get some more flowering plants growing to support them. Do you ever mentor? I’d love to shadow a local beekeeper to learn more. Thanks.

    • -dm says:

      Hi Christy

      The bees will need travel a few miles for suitable forage. And they need more forage than could be planted in a typical yard.
      I would suggest planting caragana and russian olive. They are cold, drought and wind tolerant. And they can handle our alkaline water and soil. You could use them in a wind break or hedge.

      Bees need a succession and variety of forage for proper nutrition. And that’s tough to come by with Wyoming’s very limited biodiversity, much of it unsuitable for beekeeping.

      Unfortunately, the Platte River, with it’s controlled flow, is little more than a irrigation canal. The natural flooding and scouring, which once produced larger areas of seasonal plant diversity just doesn’t occur there.

      But bee forage does occur in and around alfalfa fields irrigated with Platte River water. And the few natural creeks that flow north toward the Platte have some spring to midsummer bee forage.

      Shadowing? It’s the best idea ever. I suggest anyone thinking of beekeeping get some practical experience with bees before spending a dime. The actual experience is often much different that what’s anticipated.

      Mentoring? I’ve done a little of that in the past. Back then, I had the extra gear. But today, not so. I’ve got just enough gear for one person. And am just not comfortable taking someone to my beeyard unprotected.

      I don’t mind helping someone with their bees though.

      -dm

  4. Christy Kroeker says:

    What are the chances of catching a honey bee swarm east of Casper along the Platte River? Do I need to buy a package or can I reasonably count on catching a swarm? Do you know how I could find out about available swarms?

    • -dm says:

      Hi Christy

      You might get one, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But more importantly, with our short season, a package can be hived 2 brood cycles before a swarm would emerge.

      It’s always a struggle for any swarm or package to make a broodnest and store enough honey to survive in our short season. But a package is a more sure way to get a hive established.

      A nuc is a better bet than either a swarm or a package. They are cohesive bees. And have a laying queen, comb, brood and food. But there’s a greater risk of picking up pests or diseases that come with the comb.

      -dm

  5. Christy Kroeker says:

    In Casper, Wy is there an ideal time for installing a package of bees?

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