Beeyard Thoughts- Observations and Updates

By: James E. Tew

A surprise bear attack on a hive of mine

A few months ago, a lone wandering male bear made big time news in NE Ohio. For many years, young male bears have been expanding their range back into Ohio from NW Pennsylvania. These events are rare; therefore, comments were made by most media sources. However, no one got really worked up about these sightings. 

Then a young bear showed up in the Akron/Canton area, about thirty miles from my home. This young bear experienced high human population and traffic congestion. Much like the old Killer Bee angst, a good deal of fear spread. People were concerned for pets that had never encountered such a formidable predator. 

Bear sightings were in all the news, and we were all kept abreast of where the bear had wandered. As I had learned while reading about bear behavior for an upcoming trip to Yellowstone, these animals are wide wandering animals. A range for a foraging bear is measured in square miles. These animals can really get around in a short time.

Literally, I interrupt this developing article for a news break. 

I had just responded to my wife’s call for assistance with a water hose leak, when with my terrible hearing, I perceived a low level consistent roar.  I asked my wife what was that noise and just before she said “bees!,” I realized I was hearing a swarm – a big one. Today is July 13. Why is a swarm coming in?  Is it my bees or are they free?  I was completely unprepared to hive this large late season swarm. This swarm story is still unfolding.  I have never done this before, but essentially, I am developing two articles at one time. 

I am trying to write about bear activities as I periodically run back to a nearby apple tree to monitor this large, skittish swarm that is reluctantly entering my hive box. You can guess what next month’s article will address -late season swarms. 

I now return to the bear article in progress.

This young bear-guy was on the move. He was covering significant distances and seemed to be in a hurry to get nowhere. Now move to chapter two of this NE Ohio bear story. 

I was in my mobile phone store, when a familiar-looking guy said, “Dr. Tew, how is it going?  Bees still in good shape?” As I expected, he was a local beekeeper who had attended many of my workshops when I was working for the Ohio State University. 

He said, “You know that bear that has been all the talk?  He found my beehives and destroyed them all.” I was surprised to learn that fact. The bear had moved about 18 miles south from the Akron area.  What are the chances in all that territory of that bear finding the hives of beekeeper Glen T.? We talked about the mess and the cleanup, and I offered all the sympathy I could. My last (and only) bear attack was about 35 years ago when a friend of mine and I kept bees in Quebec, Canada.

The last known Ohio wild bear was killed in 1850. If I may speak for many Ohioans, we don’t have a lot of bear behavior experience – with anything but certainly not our bees. My name was called for my phone repair work, so Glen and I parted ways. I didn’t hear anything more about the bear for a while. 

Maybe a week later and with modest fanfare, the bear was reported to have been killed on an interstate highway – once again near Akron. Wow! What a bear-trip that was. For a brief moment, Ohio was like other states that deal with these large animals. But now, the Ohio bear had been accidentally killed. We could all go outside again.

The Canadian bee caper

I’m in the yellow vest. My friend is fighting blackflies.

I mentioned my Canadian bee/bear experience. It happened maybe 35 to 40 years ago. I was new to Ohio and had formed a friendship with a fellow worker who had a cottage in the wilds of Quebec. After visiting the cottage a couple of times and being as consumed with bees as I was, I concocted a light-weight idea. My friend and I would start a bee operation at his cottage. 

For Canadians who may be reading this piece, please know that life and regulations were much different all those years ago. All I needed was an Ohio driver’s license to cross the border (and return). To take my daughters along, all my wife and I had to do was answer “yes” when the border control agent asked if the girls were our legal children. Although I hope not, my friend and I may have broken Canadian regulations; however, this project was lunacy in a bucket. We unintentionally did several things wrong.

As I recall parts of this story – that for many years I tried to forget – we took 15 packages and 45 deeps, along with necessary tops, bottoms, and inner covers. Our plan was for the first year to be a building year so we would haul supers the next year. The yard was in a beautiful, remote area. How could these colonies not thrive?

This was a young man’s folly. It was a huge expenditure of energy and money (money that I really did not have.) My friend made multiple trips per year to his property. I frequently went along on the 15 hour run – essentially non-stop except for fuel, food, and toilets. 

The finished yard in a stand of Quaking Aspens and near a beautiful lake.

Remember that there were no mites at this time. We were sailing along in the bee world. We speculated that these colonies would be full-sized, honey producing colonies in just a single season. (I know. I know, but we were young beekeepers) We were going to make some kind of money. 

The hives sat directly on the ground. We were loaded on the first trip. Much like hauling supplies to the space station, we were to provide hive stands and paint on the second trip. The bees and the surrounds were both beautiful.  This was truly an adventure of epic proportions.

As we left the area, we stopped by one last time before starting the long drive to Ohio. All looked good.  As we admired our work, I noted large animal tracks in our yard. I don’t know. Moose? If it was deer, it was a very large deer. I had a premonition. Wondering what the natural enemies of such large animals were, I asked my co-beekeeper if bears were here. He was quick and decisive. No. No bears in in many, many years.  That was the answer I wanted to believe.

The call.

It must have been six – maybe eight weeks before the call came.  We were told that the two of us seemingly had bee equipment scattered all over Quebec. The caller said no colonies were left standing, and there were no flying bees. He said it looked like a total loss. Indeed, it was. 

No trip was planned for weeks.  By the time we got there, maybe three months had passed.  Unusual for me, I did not snap a single photo. It was too embarrassing and disheartening.  It was immediately clear that this project was dead. We lived too far away to use electric fencing or other measures. We were done.  We had wasted our money and time. 

Beehive furniture

We didn’t haul anything back.  Frames became kindling. But the forty-five boxes became shelving, improvised tables, and cabinets.  As it were, the beehive motif looked good at the cottage. What stories those boxes could have told if only they could talk.

My bear experiences

Other than memories, the 45 deep hive bodies are all that remain of the Canadian bee caper.  I have sat in on the bear experiences of others. I have photographed bear-proofed yards in Florida, and I have chatted with various Maine beekeepers who routinely deal with bears. It was passing conversations. I didn’t have bear problems. I was just being polite.

Do you remember?

This is the hot hive that had to be moved.

Some of you may remember a particularly hot hive I wrote about last year. It buzzed and stung my neighbor – who decided he had mowed over a yellowjacket nest. It was a big deal for me. My bees were attacking innocent people. I went to extremes writing and remedying the situation. 

I finally moved the colony (originally a swarm that came to my yard) about 40 miles away. That ended my problems with my home yard.  I had made a split so I moved that too.

Last Winter passed. The parent colony survived very well, but the split did not make it. I supered the remaining colony and noted that it was still a very hot hive. But in rural wilds, a hot hive should have a better chance of surviving.  Everything seemed solved. 

I did not see this one coming

During the middle of June, literally, out of the blue, my friend, who has a cabin in rural Ohio, sent me the following photo of my bees. 

For a brief moment, I did not think, “bear.” But rather I had the silly thought that it took some tough kids to vandalize that hive.  Then, as though I was a slow learner, it hit me that there was more than one bear in my general area. There was more than one Ohio bear. Almost immediately, I was struck with the irony that I now understood – much better – the shock and surprise that Glen T. felt when he was telling me his story. 

My only bear experience was the story I told above. I instantly assumed that there were no survivor bees. Though we couldn’t go that day, we did make the trip two days later. My friend’s bees were packages while mine was an overwintered unit with more brood and honey. It bore the brunt of the attack. One of my friend’s package colonies seemed to have served as an appetizer. 

What a storied colony

This colony came to me as a foreign swarm. It tormented my neighbor. It made casual visits to my apiary unenjoyable. It was a difficult move to a different location, and it had never produced any surplus honey. Now, it had suffered a serious bear attack. 

The bees fought back

To all who routinely deal with bears, I realize that a one hive/one bear situation is amusing.  Truthfully? I hope I don’t have any more experiences like this. But apparently, the bees did put up a fight. For all the bear/bee people out there, did this attack happen during the day, during the night or either? I ask this because the bear had created what I have named “bear tunnels.” 

These tunnels are areas away from the colony and back in the brush. As I pushed into these secluded areas, I took a moment to wonder what I should do if the animal was still there. All appeared quiet. Due to weed recovery and rain, the crime appeared to have happened several days before. I pushed on into all of these areas to get my frames and hive bodies.  These “tunnels” look like the one in the following photo.

Yet another surprise

Unlike my Canadian Bear/Bee experience, the bees underneath this hive body were locked and loaded.

After clearing the tunnels and accumulating all the busted equipment, I turned to the process of reassembling the hive – more as a neatening process than a bee management process. There were a few demoralized bees flying around. Heavy rain had drenched everything. Mosquitoes were attacking in unnerving numbers. 

I tossed a bottom board into place, put an empty deep atop it, and picked up the hive body with a few bees showing. Wow – underneath that deep was about two pounds of hungry, wet survivor bees that had NOT capitulated.  With that brief touch, I set off a stinging firestorm.  It was time to move – fast – from the area. I was unprepared for this attack. I knew there were some bees there but so far all had been lethargic and unresponsive. That all changed when I rolled that hive body over.  They were immediately in high defense mode. I was in “abandon the area” mode. 

The odor

Throughout the clean-up event, there was a sour, compost, odd odor. My friend and I estimated that it had been three days since the bear had been there. Maybe it was spilled honey, dead brood, rain, or forest compost providing the odor. I don’t know. Did the bear have something to do with the smell in the area?

It was a rainy day. I had suddenly been stung several times and through it all was a strange earthy odor of compost, I suppose.  Cleaning this mess was no better than cleaning winter-kill colonies.

Finally –

Presently, the colony is not in good shape. From my friend’s description, I suspect it is queenless. It had no food stores and all brood was destroyed. I didn’t like this colony, but I never intended for this to happen to it.  Should I just cut my losses and let it go?

Clearly, as I finish this piece, I can say that this is not a how-to article on dealing with bears.  These are my first time experiences, and the surprises that came with those experiences. Is the bear coming back. Certainly, I don’t know. Electric fences? Is the cost worth it. The cottage? Should we always be on bear-alert? And don’t you know, bears are protected in Ohio.  Beehives are not. Where is this new bear business going to end?

Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University, Emeritus Faculty, Entomology, The Ohio State University;;; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (;; @onetewbee