SALT LAKE CITY — They're behind a $34 billion contribution to the U.S. economy, putting food on your table and blooms in your garden and sometime this spring one will fly right past you.
But pollinators, in general, are in decline and need an assist from people.
Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, aims to establish a three-year pilot program in Utah that will boost pollinator awareness and provide financial incentives for property owners to plant pollinator-friendly foliage to encourage bees, butterflies and even pollinating beetles to hang around.
HB223, which would set up the program under the purview of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, got stung in a legislative committee recently, however, because of its overall $390,000 fiscal note.
Members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee universally liked her proposal but said in a tight fiscal year such as this, they want her to shop for alternative funding streams that don't put so much pressure on the general fund.
They voted to hold the bill, but on Friday, after Matthews came back with a substitute that didn't require a new appropriation of money, the measure passed unanimously.
Instead of new money, the bill proposes to take $60,000 in education funding for Southern Utah University, which has a robust pollinator program. It also says the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food will provide incentives for pollinator-friendly plants, but at no more than a cost of $100,000 that it will absorb as an agency.
Utah is teeming with bees — this is the Beehive State after all — with 1,100 species that call the state home.
Joseph S. Wilson, a professor at Utah State University's Tooele campus, said of the 4,000 species of bees in North America, a quarter of those species live in Utah.
When people think bees, they think of the honey bee that Southern Utah University professor Jackie Grant said produces $1.3 million a year in Utah when it comes to the honey economy.
When it comes down to money, Grant said pollinators like honey bees perform a value of work put at $1,000 an acre — that is what farmers and others in the plant world would have to spend to take up that workload.
But there are hundreds of other bee species out there that live out "solitary" lives, Wilson told the committee, and the Mason bee species, for example, can accomplish the same work of 100 honey bees and that is just with two working the same area.
A new study out by the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University notes that some of these busy little bees are headed for crisis, with one-third of managed honey bee colonies dying each winter in the United States, and populations of many wild pollinator species are experiencing declines as well.
Researchers found that 20% of U.S. counties produce 80% of total economic value that can be attributed to wild and managed pollinators. Their findings will inform conservation efforts and ensure sustainable production of key crops in the years to come.
The research suggests a need for farmers to mitigate the shrinking bee populations by providing a more suitable habitat for the insects to thrive.
That is the aim of Matthews' bill, which would boost pollinator awareness as well as provide financial incentives like grants for property owners to plant pollinator-friendly foliage.
Matthews told the committee of her own personal experience as both a gardener and beekeeper. Her quarter-acre garden has produced a tremendous increase in its yield of produce, something she said she would like to take credit for but can't.
"The biggest impact on our harvest is the 20,000 bees from our hive," she said.
Under her measure, grants would cover 25% of the costs for planting pollinating friendly forbs and legumes on private or public land.
Beyond that, Matthews and her supporters said Utah has excellent infrastructure already in place to facilitate the program's success through USU extension service offices scattered statewide, the state-run seed lab in Ephraim and support from multiple university research programs, including the cutting-edge bee lab at USU.
Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, said he would love to partner with the pilot program should it be established.
He told committee members the commission has been working with private property owners along the Jordan River to encourage putting in plants to attract the Monarch butterfly, which is nearing endangered status after showing a species decline of 99%, according to Butterfly Conservation.
"We would love to be a resource," he said. "We would love to see this move forward."