What wildflowers are common in Utah

660 species of bees live in this nature reserve

It's not clear why this remote corner of Utah is so attractive to bees. The biodiversity of the bees is probably directly related to that of the desert flowers that the insects pollinate. In addition, the area offers many different habitats: sandstone gorges, barren areas with sage bushes, but also aspen and pine forests in higher elevations.

But the fate of the bee hotspot in Grand Staircase-Escalante could be uncertain. Following the decree of President Donald Trump in 2017, the reserve was reduced to half its original size in February 2018, 22 years after its creation. In addition, it was split into three smaller areas. The formerly contiguous nature reserve - which allowed wild animals such as pumas and bears to live naturally without significant contact with humans - is now divided into separate units. The no longer protected areas could soon be affected by development or mining.

An uncertain future

Carril and other scientists therefore decided to conduct a follow-up study. It investigated which bees could be affected by changes. It was featured in the science magazine on December 4, 2018 PeerJ released. The good news: 87 percent of all bee species live in protected areas. However, that leaves 13 percent or 84 species that are no longer found in any of the three remaining protected areas. Many of these species are widespread in the western United States; however, there are a few species that are believed to be unique to us and that are of great interest to science.

It's hard to say exactly what that means, says Joe Wilson, an ecologist at Utah State University Toole who specializes in bees and co-authored both studies. The plans for the region still leave everything open. The original management plan for the nature reserve explicitly stipulated that it should remain undeveloped and “in its original natural form”.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not yet decided how to proceed with the protected areas, nor what should happen to the now exempted areas. The agency recently announced details of what future they are aiming for: one in which "very few lands are protected because of their physical, biological and cultural resources". According to the draft administrative project and the communication on the impact on the environment, there should be "the smallest possible restrictions on energy production and mining". Nearly 3,000 square kilometers of unprotected land could be torn up for the extraction of coal and other minerals. Drilling for oil and gas would also be possible. Wilson notes that the bees are not mentioned in the document, even though the agency funded Carril's first study.

The impact could be huge or minimal. We just don't know, ”says Wilson. The authority could decide to leave the unprotected areas as natural as possible, with few roads and hardly any infrastructure, which would leave the species living there unaffected. That might even be the case if one were to engage in the least intrusive form of mining - for example, processes that are similar to the natural escape of gases and that only at a low level, Wilson speculates. However, if she decides to open large chunks of natural habitats for growing tourism or destructive open pit mining, bee populations could suffer. There isn't much research into how specifically bees are affected by mining activities, he explains. However, "anything that has a negative influence on the plants will undoubtedly also have a negative effect on the bees and vice versa."

Most of the bees in the Grand Staircase are unlikely to pollinate crops, which is one of the main arguments in favor of protecting them. Still, protecting this incredible biodiversity is key to maintaining the intact ecosystem, notes Daniel Cariveau. He is an ecologist at the University of Minnesota and was not involved in either study.

We don't know what we're losing until we've studied it carefully, he adds. "We have all these wonderful species, this multitude of subspecies, this evolutionary history that has been going on for millions of years," says Cariveau. "Can we as a society justify making it all disappear?"

Jewels in the desert

Scientists are not sure why bees thrive so well in the desert of all places. However, one of the reasons seems to be the unique composition of flowers in the region. Many bees are highly specialized and only pollinate certain plants. Some species of bees in the genus D.iadasia visit, for example, only the flowers of cacti.