The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Curious Beekeeper

Why Did the Bear Cross the Road? Black Bears in the Bee Yard

- February 1, 2022 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Bear Damage to Hives

This is a story about complacency, rationalization, and ignoring the advice I give to others. It’s about a bear I barely knew. And, ultimately, it’s about the generosity of beekeepers I never met. So let’s take it from the top.

My home borders the 110,000-acre Capitol State Forest in Washington State, a working forest where towering Douglas-firs1 are raised and harvested to fund public schools and state universities. The Capitol Forest is an exquisitely walkable place with 150 miles of trails that crisscross a variety of terrain and land features. I’ve walked among those trees almost daily for 27 years.

The only thing separating my home from the forest is a gravel road, a narrow easement that runs along the forest edge. This roadway allows us to drive three-quarters of a mile from our house to the nearest public road. Without it, we would be landlocked.

The easement is a place of wonder, a gash of sunlight that bisects the dark fir boughs. Creatures galore flock to the light, from delicate Andrena bees that feast on the snowberry blossoms, to enormous pileated woodpeckers that drill perfect rectangles in the trunks of dead trees. Watch the ground and you will see lizards, snakes, slugs, and other slippery dudes slinking to the far side, always searching for an edible morsel.

In winter, after a dusting of snow quiets the forest chatter, the easement road is a thoroughfare for deer, rabbits, cougar, fox, and porcupines. Their prints tell a story of constant motion, of individuals searching for missed berries or semi-tender leaves, of creatures making furtive crossings in the blessed warmth of a low-slung sun. Not usually seen in winter, but close by nevertheless, are American black bears, Ursus americanus.


Our neighbors the black bears

Washington is home to only 30,000 of these magnificent creatures. Black bears are omnivores, meaning they eat just about everything. While most of their diet is plant matter — including berries, grasses, leaves, and nuts — they admire animal protein when they can find it. They’re not picky, often feeding on insects, carrion, small mammals, fish, and eggs.2 Such rich treats are easy to locate when you’re equipped with a powerfully fine-tuned sense of smell and have the patience and bulk to go anywhere you please.

We lived peaceably with bears for all those years, but I never saw one on “our side” of the road. That’s not to say I haven’t felt their presence. I’ve recognized their tracks in the mud and their scat in the snow. I’ve seen them standing on hind legs when I’ve hiked around a bend in the trail, and I’ve observed their telltale scratchings on alder trees. Excited equestrians have stopped to describe the sow with cubs they just passed in the woods — a momma that gets bigger with every telling. Then, too, I’ve seen those yellow-and-black road signs sprinkled around the county, the ones that warn motorists of a popular “Bear Crossing.”

So why, oh why, did I not protect my bees from bears? I’ve revisited that question since the April morning when I discovered eleven of my fourteen hives reduced to toothpicks. Some of the decimated hives contained bees and some did not, but the bear was thorough, leaving no hive unturned.


What took her so long?

So how did I survive all those beekeeping years without a bear attack? My theory, weak though it may be, was always about prevailing winds. I believed the breezes that travel east from the ocean and across the Black Hills flowed down the hillside near our home. From there, the scent of the hives passed into the gully that carries a modest salmon-bearing creek on a winding path back to the sea.

Because the air seemed to consistently move down toward the creek — and not up toward the hills — I thought the air drainage might keep the hive scent from returning to the forest, thus keeping the bears at bay. Maybe it did. Until it didn’t.


So much for a theory

We’re usually at home in April, preparing for the season ahead. I tend to my bees then, making splits, preparing honey supers, mending and checking as I go. I love that time of year when I can simply fiddle about the hives, changing, fixing, adjusting. In April, as brood rearing escalates and the big-leaf maples burst into chartreuse blooms, the hive scent is heavenly. The rich proteinaceous odor — reminiscent of a butcher shop — floats on the air in the most luscious way, mixing with the aroma of fresh nectar and greening leaves.

Last year, instead of April as usual, we made a quick trip to South Dakota. We hardly ever leave home together, so this was unusual. We checked on the bees, left the dog and two cats at a boarding kennel priced like a spa, and headed due east, armed with cookies, masks, and hand sanitizer. It was a fun trip, and I discovered I like driving 80 mph past gray-green sagebrushes while wondering if Montana has more than one gas station.

Upon returning home the following week, I checked on the top-bar bees that live next to the driveway. They were single-minded, loaded with pollen and nectar, doing what bees do. They looked blessedly content. In fact, I did no further checking until we emptied the truck, sorted the mail, and stocked the fridge. The two hives directly behind the house were empty but equipped with swarm lures, so everything seemed normal.


Short-lived peace

Two days later, I walked the woodland trails to the four small clearings that form my apiary. I have never been so unsurprised in my entire life as when I discovered the damage. “I knew it,” I said aloud to no one. I had been expecting this day for all those years, and it finally came. It was a moment of catharsis: the time when I could finally stop worrying about when it was going to happen. “There now,” I thought. “It’s done.”

The damage was truly spectacular. Brood boxes were tossed about and inverted so the bottom rails could be ripped cleanly from the frames. Chunks of comb littered the ground and pieces of woodenware hung like ornaments from the low limbs of maples and cascara. Hive parts were scattered along the trails and into the woods like bread crumbs.

I had constructed all my boxes with screws rather than nails, which was definitely a plus. Every last one of my boxes is still square and completely usable, but everything else, including frames, feeders, quilt boxes, robbing screens, mouse guards, inner covers, and bottom boards were nothing but memories. The ratcheting tie-downs hung limply from the hive stands, all of a piece. It appears the bear merely pushed each stack of boxes right through the grip of the strap.

For want of a dog

Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if the dog — or lack of a dog — was part of the bear’s decision-making process. Q2 is a purebred Australian cattle dog who barks ferociously, scent-marks everything, and corrals the local critters into their proper places. He’s an OCD ACD who surveils the easement several times each day, separating and sorting each species as he goes.

Deer are not allowed in the orchard, raccoons may not enter the garden, and rabbits may not eat the clover. Even bees are monitored. If one dares to cross the driveway, Q2 swallows it whole. After plowing his nose into the grass ….