SHERIDAN — Looking for ways to help the state’s struggling beekeepers, Wyoming lawmakers are considering offering them a tax break that farmers and ranchers currently get.
The Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands, and Water Resources Interim Committee has asked legislative staff to prepare a bill for consideration at its next meeting in September that would allow beekeepers to designate their land as agricultural land under the state’s revenue codes.
That is no small incentive. On a five-acre parcel of land that is designated residential and has a fair market value of $5,000 per acre, property owners will pay an average of $163 in property taxes per year. (This does not include the taxes they pay for any house or other structures on the property.)
If the property is used for irrigated cropland, however, the tax bill would be $60. For dry cropland, the owner would pay just $10, provided that land had average productivity and an average growing season.
But securing those savings isn’t designed to be easy.
For land to qualify as agricultural land in Wyoming, it has to meet certain criteria. For instance, landowners must prove they sell at least $500 a year of agricultural goods produced on their land. If they lease their land, the lessee must show $1,000 or more of sales. They also must produce according to the land’s capacity.
“I can’t just put one cow on six sections of ground,” and qualify for the ag designation, said Brenda Arnold, administrator of the Property Tax Division at the Wyoming Department of Revenue.
That complicates the potential benefits to beekeepers. So, too, does the fact that many beekeepers place their hives on a neighbor’s farmland to pollinate their crops. So for them, a property tax break wouldn’t make a difference.
But Bonnie Gregory, a beekeeper and local food advocate, said she thinks every bit of help counts. She said a new land designation for beekeepers has been in the works for a while and she’s glad to see it moving forward.
“Even if it only helps a small sliver of people, as long as we keep drawing attention to our pollinators and our honeybees, I think it’s good,” Gregory said. “It’s progress.”
A documentary called “Vanishing of the Bees” that discusses colony collapse disorder and other problems facing the species helped spur Gregory to take action.
“I decided, ‘I can keep bees. I can encourage other people to keep backyard bees,’” she said.
Devon Miller is another local who is concerned about struggling bee populations. Miller, who started her first hive a month ago with her fiancé and a friend, has already been fielding requests for honey.
She said that the setup costs can indeed be steep. Hives sell online for $80, on the cheap end, while a beekeeping suit goes for anywhere between $50-$160. A package of bees costs around $120.
But for Miller and her fiancé, Brett Bursell, the investment has a bigger aim.
“We’re just trying to keep populations up,” Bursell said. “Like I said, the goal is really conservation. The honey and the wax is just a nice bonus.”
While the potential tax changes could help some, the bigger problems facing beekeepers in the Cowboy State don’t have an easy answer. The parasitic mite is a major culprit in annual hive losses and Don Bryant, a fourth generation beekeeper from Worland, has seen the effect.
“That has really caused havoc in the state of Wyoming,” said Bryant, head of the Wyoming State Beekeepers Association.
This winter, roughly 28 percent of all bee colonies managed in the U.S. died, according to preliminary survey results from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and partnering organizations. That’s up nearly 6 percentage points from the previous winter.
Bees might be better suited to withstand the pressure from mites if they were healthier to begin with, Bryant said. But a decrease in available forage means there is simply less nutrition for bees in Wyoming than there once was, he said.
Like many bee advocates, Bryant said this is due to changes in farming practices — such as an increase in use of herbicides and using more sprinkler irrigation systems than irrigation ditches, which foster plant growth along the banks. Bryant said driving down the highways, he sees fewer Russian olive trees, wild clover and other flowering plants than he did in the past. And the same goes for wild plant life in town as well.
“I mean, people don’t realize the importance of a dandelion to a beekeeper,” Bryant said.