Earth Notes: Bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante

Apr 10, 2019

There's a buzz in the air in southern Utah these days. A recent study shows incredible diversity among the bees of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Some 660 different species have been identified in this national monument—almost as many as all the bee species east of the Mississippi River!

Bees in Grand Staircase
Credit Joe Wilson and Olivia Carril

The bees are often highly specialized. They may nest in the ground, in cavities, or even in individual twigs—they can be loners or highly social. Some spend their entire lives in an area the size of a living room, venturing outside for just a few weeks a year. Others are tiny and live on a single kind of cactus.

Why is the area’s bee fauna so rich? Most likely it’s tied to the monument’s large elevation gradient and mosaic of habitats, including riparian areas with perennial water—not to mention the highest diversity of flowering plants in the Intermountain West.

But at least eighty of those species could be lost if the 1.7-million-acre monument is shrunk by 870,000 acres, as proposed by the federal government. More than 86 percent of the monument’s bee species do have some range within the redrawn boundaries. But, removing protections could bring more grazing, mining, and off-road vehicles, damaging habitat for the existing bees—and those moving in from the Mohave Desert as the Southwest’s climate gets hotter and drier.

So far, many of these bee species have barely been named. And with pollinator populations in widespread decline, no one knows what valuable knowledge could be lost forever, if  species start disappearing from this crown jewel of the Beehive State.