Quantcast
Animals
A young black bear in Bozeman, Montana. James Hager / Media Bakery

Resolving a Real-Life Rivalry Between Bears and Honeybees

By Corey Binns

Dressed in a white beekeeping suit, Zack Strong tried to ignore the honeybees buzzing around his hood as he pounded fence posts into late summer's rock-hard ground about 20 miles southwest of Columbus, Montana. The native Montanan and advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Land and Wildlife program had made the trip from his home in Bozeman to these endless, rolling plains stretching north and east of the towering Beartooth Mountains to resolve a conflict between a storied pair of rivals, bees and bears. Black bears had recently bothered bee yards in this area, jeopardizing business for local apiarists in the nation's second-largest honey-producing state.

As anyone familiar with Winnie the Pooh will know—and as Dr. Alex Few, a biologist with U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, will attest to—conflicts between honeybees and bears are not new. Both black and grizzly bears love honey and will also eat bees and their larvae. But now that bear populations are expanding, conflicts are cropping up in new areas, Few noted.


Luckily, because bee yards are fairly compact, usually comprising 40 or fewer beehive boxes, electric fencing provides fairly simple and inexpensive protection. And as Strong pointed out, not only do the fences keep business buzzing—they are also "keeping bears alive and out of trouble."

Building five electric fences in two days to protect commercial honeybee yards from intruding bears requires a dedicated team. On this particular occasion, Strong was joined by NRDC field technician Josh Ross, NRDC environmental fellow Angela Hessenius, and an experienced crew from Defenders of Wildlife, Montana honey producer Sunshine Apiary, and USDA Wildlife Services. Together they installed posts and stretched wire in 90-degree heat, until the sun set behind the mountains and a cooling thunderstorm rolled in.

Sunshine's owners, Patty and Lance Sundberg, welcomed the help on their property. "Most beekeepers love wildlife, but, unfortunately, when a bear becomes a problem, they do not go away," Patty said. The Sundbergs have had their apiary since 1980 and say they've seen bears encroaching into new territory over the past decade. They plan to continue building some 5 to 10 new fences a year—an investment of its own, Patty noted, but a worthwhile one given that each bear bandit costs Sunshine up to $8,000 in lost damages. The Sundbergs' own expertise in bear behavior also helped inform the conservationists' fence design, since, over the years, they've seen what works and what doesn't.

NRDC wildlife advocate Zack Strong and Sunshine Apiary staff member Buddy DeHaven pound posts to anchor an electric fence.Alex Few / USDA Wildlife Services

Why Montana is seeing an uptick in reports of Pooh bears getting caught with their paws in the honey pot is a mystery. Strong said expanding grizzly bear populations may be displacing black bears into new and less familiar habitats. Eventually, Yellowstone-area grizzlies (which were recently removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species) might also expand into this project area, Strong said. So while the bee fences were added mainly in response to recent black bear conflicts, they can also serve as a deterrent for grizzlies.

In fact, in 2010 Defenders of Wildlife launched its Electric Fence Incentive Program primarily as a grizzly bear conservation tool. Since then, the group has built more than 280 electric fence projects to safeguard chicken coops, fruit trees, gardens, small livestock and bees, primarily on private lands.

People resorting to lethal methods—guns, poisons, and traps—to resolve conflicts with wildlife pose one of the greatest obstacles to grizzly bear recovery, said Russ Talmo, Rockies and Plains program associate at Defenders of Wildlife. As an incentive to participate, the program subsidizes the cost of electric fences (up to a maximum of $500) and provides technical assistance to landowners and producers interested in adding them to their properties. The program appears to be working toward its goal of not just reducing conflicts, said Talmo, but also "fostering greater tolerance for bears on the landscape."

Over their two days of pounding T-posts and moving fence panels on the Montana plains, the team of wildlife advocates and apiarists bonded. "It felt like a bunch of friends coming together for a weekend work project, like building a neighbor's barn," Few said.

A permanent electrified panel fence protects one of Sunshine Apiary's bee yards from bears in South Central, Montana.NRDC

In recent years, NRDC and Wildlife Services have partnered on related projects, including installing electric fencing called fladry to protect cattle and sheep from bears and wolves in the northern Rockies. The organizations have had differences in the past regarding predator control practices, so their united efforts are meaningful, said Strong. "I hope and believe that our collaborations will continue and expand in Montana and beyond," he added.

Montana's diverse and abundant wildlife is one of the things that make the state special, Strong said, even though it can present challenges. By supporting projects that mitigate wildlife conflicts, NRDC can help foster win-win solutions, good for businesses and communities, and for wildlife and natural landscapes, too.

Strong counts hundreds of bee yards in bear country throughout Montana that still lack bear-proof fencing. There are plenty of posts left to pound into the ground. "But with every fence we build, we create a more bear-friendly landscape," he said. His hope is that as the fences build up a record of success, more and more honey producers will be interested in partnering—making better neighbors out of the bears and the bees, and Montanans, too.

Corey Binns is a science and health writer based in Northern California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Popular Science, Marie Claire, TODAY.com, Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Women's Health, the New York Times, and msnbc.com. Binns was also named Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow by the Association of Health Care Journalists in 2009.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Abdallah Issa / Flickr

Post-Fire Landslide Problems Likely to Worsen: What Can Be Done?

By Lee MacDonald

Several weeks after a series of wildfires blackened nearly 500 square miles in Southern California, a large winter storm rolled in from the Pacific. In most places the rainfall was welcomed and did not cause any major flooding from burned or unburned hillslopes.

But in the town of Montecito, a coastal community in Santa Barbara County that lies at the foot of the mountains blackened by the Thomas Fire, a devastating set of sediment-laden flows killed at least 20 people and damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes. In the popular press these flows were termed "mudslides," but with some rocks as large as cars these are more accurately described as hyperconcentrated flows or debris flows, depending on the amount of sediment mixed with the water.

Keep reading... Show less
The most notable observation from the count was DeMartino's sighting of the golden crowned kinglet, but in general volunteers found the same species they normally do. (Photo above is of a golden crowned kinglet, but not the one DeMartino spotted.) Melissa McMasters

Birders Get a First Look at How 2017 California Wildfires Affected Wildlife

By Matt Blois

A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess's door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.

Keep reading... Show less
A learning garden from Kimbal Musk's nonprofit called Big Green. The Kitchen Community

Elon Musk's Brother Wants to Bring #RealFood to 100,000 Schools Across America

Kimbal Musk's nonprofit organization, The Kitchen Community, is expanding into a new, national nonprofit called Big Green, to build hundreds of outdoor Learning Garden classrooms across America.

Learning Gardens teach children an understanding of food, healthy eating and garden skills through experiential learning and garden-based education that tie into existing school curriculum, such as math, science and literacy.

Keep reading... Show less
Drilling fluids spilled into Ohio wetlands during construction of the Rover Pipeline in April. Sierra Club

Rover Pipeline Spills Another 150,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid Into Ohio Wetlands

Energy Transfer Partners' troubled $4.2 billion Rover pipeline has spilled nearly 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands near the Tuscarawas River in Stark County, Ohio—the same site where it released 2 million gallons in April.

The 713-mile pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, is currently under construction by the same Dallas-based company that built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Large Dams Fail on Climate Change and Indigenous Rights

Brazil has flooded large swaths of the Amazon for hydro dams, despite opposition from Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and others. The country gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower. Brazil's government had plans to expand development, opening half the Amazon basin to hydro. But a surprising announcement could halt that.

Keep reading... Show less
Jim Henderson / Wikimedia Commons

World's Largest Money Manager: Companies Must Respond to Social and Climate Challenges

The world's largest publicly traded companies must take a more active role in solving social issues or face blowback from investors, the CEO of BlackRock said Tuesday.

"To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society," Laurence Fink wrote in his annual letter to CEOs of companies in which BlackRock invests. BlackRock is the world's largest money manager, with more than $6 trillion in assets.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
16:9clue / Flickr

Lawsuit Filed Against Walmart for Claiming 'Cage-Free' Eggs

By Dan Nosowitz

A lawsuit has been filed in a California district court against two of the biggest companies in the country: Walmart and Cal-Maine Foods. The lawsuit claims that Walmart and Cal-Maine—the latter is one of the biggest egg producers in the U.S.—lied to customers about the treatment of hens whose eggs were sold at Walmart. The alleged lie? The packaging claimed "outdoor access," yet the birds are not permitted to go outside.

Keep reading... Show less
Ryan Zinke. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Majority of National Parks Panel Quits in Protest of Ryan Zinke

Nearly all members of the National Park Service advisory panel abruptly quit on Monday in protest of the Trump administration's policies, which they say have neglected science, climate change and environmental protections.

"From all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside," the head of the panel, Tony Knowles, wrote in a letter of resignation addressed to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who oversees management of the country's national parks and monuments.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!