Few honey bee predators can elicit a level of fear and trepidation in a beekeeper as much as a bear. Be it black, brown or of the grizzly variety, a bear can reduce a tall, well-organized, proud hive into a chaotic mess of splintered wood, mangled combs, and dead bees very quickly. In general, bears live in wooded areas and tend not to wander around too much in open fields, especially where there is a lot of human activity. Bear problems can be especially acute during Autumn when bears in northern climates are feeding heavily in preparation for Winter hibernation.
One of the earliest forms of protecting an apiary from bears was to use a physical enclosure of some kind, such as a stone wall. The inside of the wall would contain recessed areas, in which woven skep hives (also called 'bee boles') could be placed. Today, permanent fences, such as those made of chain link fencing, may enclose an apiary in order to provide bear protection. A common alternative popular in our modern society and for those looking for a movable, or temporary solution, is the electric fence. Photo voltaic technology allows self-charging solar-electric fences to be set up in hard to reach remote locations. Some beekeepers recommend hanging a slice of bacon from one of the hot wires so that when a bear first approaches the fence, they will tend to reach out and touch the bacon with either their nose or their tongue. The idea being that by initially touching the electric fence with one of these two sensitive and wet parts of its anatomy, the resulting shock will be painful enough to prevent the bear from continuing to harbor any curiosity about what is beyond the fence.
A less pricey, low-tech approach involves creating a bed of sharp thorns that deters a hungry bear in much the same way that is recommended for use against skunks. Pieces of plywood containing nails or screws long enough to protrude between one-half and one inch and embed-ded on one side of the board at two- to three-inch intervals create a powerful, low-cost, low-maintenance deterrent when compared to an electric fence. The boards should be large and placed all around the hive so that a curious bear will not miss them when approaching from any direction. I have also heard of some beekeepers using carpet rem-nants in place of plywood. Although carpeting has the advantage of not warping like wood does, care must be taken to use thick enough carpeting to hold the nails or screws with enough rigidity that they will not be easily pushed over.
New York beekeeper Chris Harp told me a story about a fellow beekeeper who had moved some hives into an apiary but was in a hurry, so he did not take the time to remove the moving straps that were around each hive. Before he had a chance to return and remove the straps, a bear visited his beeyard. In an attempt to gain access to the delectable delights stored within the hives, the bear pushed the colonies over. However, because they were strapped, the supers did not separate and the hives did not break open when they hit the ground. As a result, the bear was not able to easily gain access to the combs so it left the hives alone. The beekeeper simply returned the hives to their stands and realizing their value as a bear deterrent left the straps on. Sometime later after one of the first light snow falls of the season had covered the ground, the beekeeper was visiting the yard and noticed bear tracks that went right through his apiary but none of the hives had been touched. Apparently the bear remembered his previous unsuccessful attempt to ransack the hives and had simply walked by them leaving them unmolested.
I recently had the chance to test the idea of using straps as a bear deterrent on some bees that were moved up into the Green Mountain National Forest wilderness areas Northeast of Middlebury, Vermont. A bear was known to be active in the area raiding peoples bird feeders. Sure enough, within two weeks something visited my apiary and knocked over boxes of bees, but because they were strapped, no damage was done! In order to avoid having my straps accidentally torn or cut by a bear’s sharp teeth or claws, I used metal straps based on the kind that beekeepers in Australia often use. Australian beekeepers tend to move their hives around a lot following the various nectar flows and they will leave such straps on their hives year around, a testament to their durability and functionality. Use of such strapping against bears can save you hundreds of dollars, and lots of time over using fences or bear boards.
Once a bear has gotten a taste of the honey and brood combs that sit in your hives, or for some other reason becomes very determined, it is practically impossible to keep them out no matter what type of bear protection you utilize. Strapping hives, like all the other options for bear protection, is not without its potential weaknesses and points of failure. Even when using metal straps which can hold up to a bear’s sharp claws, a bear could conceivably catch the cam lock buckle with a claw by accident while mauling the colony and loosen the strap. A really determined bear is also strong enough to simply rip the sides of the hive bodies apart in order to gain access if he or she chose to. If the hive is outfitted with a screened bottom board that is open to the ground the bear could easily rip the wire mesh out and reach up inside of the hive.
The biggest weakness of bear boards is that they tend to warp. This makes it easier for a crafty bear to catch the edge of a board with its paw and turn it over, or shove it out of the way. Pushing the bear boards up flush against the hive stand, or adjacent boards and staking them around the edges with wooden sticks or tent stakes can help prevent this. Just don’t forget to move the boards when you want to work the bees!
Fences, being one of the most common and expensive forms of bear control, are notorious for failing. Determined bears will dig under them, climb over them, jump over them (from an overhanging tree limb), or even go through them. One Vermont beekeeper even told me of a video that caught a bear backing into an electric fence in order to push through the fence without exposing its sensitive head and face to the hot wires. Electric fences also tend to require periodic maintenance in order to keep the battery charged and prevent vegetation from grounding out the hot wires. Some beekeepers who rely on a chain link fence, and have a relatively small yard to enclose, will cover the top with fencing along with the sides and even bury the fence two to three feet deep in order to reduce the chances of a bear climbing over or digging under the fence.
To help prevent drawbacks of the above approaches from providing you with a single point of failure, you may want to combine two, or all three of the above. This way one approach acts as the back-up system for another should a bear figure out how to get around one of them.
One alternative to all these approaches is to shoot the bear. This remedy is typically applied after the bear has already visited one or more times and reeked havoc and is not without its drawbacks. Shooting a bear that is attacking your hives may not be legal in all states. Be prepared to stay up all night waiting for the bear to show up, IF it decides to make an appearance. Unfortunately, killing an offending bear only works until the next bear comes along. Bears don’t understand human inventions such as property rights and boundaries One could argue that sentencing a bear to death simply for wandering around exploring its world and munching on all the good things it finds to eat along the way, just as bears have always done for thousands of years is extreme and unjust.
An alternative enclosure that some beekeepers use is to house bees inside a structure of some type. 'Bee Houses' have included old barns, trailers with structures built on top of them, and old buses and vans that have the seats removed in order to make room for the hives. If you can get an old junker cheap (or free if you are willing to tow it away for the owner), this has the potential to be one of the least expensive and most bear proof of all the options with one exception . . . moving the bees out of bear territory. Of course bear territories may change along with the changing climate conditions.
Moving bees is much easier than moving the bear which typically requires that the bear be trapped and/or tranquilized. This typically involves the local Fish and Game Department and is probably the most expensive option. Should your colonies be destroyed by bear despite your best efforts, some states will offer partial or full compensation to cover the loss. Check with your state bee inspector or Fish and Game Department for the situation in your region. Some states require that bees be registered in order to be covered by such a program. After all, dealing with bears is like dealing with bees: There are no guarantees!