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.

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