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Black Bears within the Beeyard

Why Did the Bear Cross the Highway?

This can be a story about complacency, rationalization, and ignoring the recommendation I give to others. It’s a few bear I barely knew. And, in the end, it’s concerning the generosity of beekeepers I by no means met. So let’s take it from the highest.

This text first appeared in American Bee Journal, Quantity 162 No. 2, February 2022, pp. 159-163.

My residence borders the 110,000-acre Capitol State Forest in Washington State, a working forest the place towering Douglas-firs1 are raised and harvested to fund public faculties and state universities. The Capitol Forest is an exquisitely walkable place with 150 miles of trails that crisscross quite a lot of terrain and land options. I’ve walked amongst these bushes virtually each day for 27 years.

I first printed these photographs and some paragraphs about black bears in spring 2021. That is the remainder of the story…

The one factor separating my residence from the forest is a gravel highway, a slim easement that runs alongside the forest edge. This roadway permits us to drive three-quarters of a mile from our home to the closest public highway. With out it, we might be landlocked.

The easement is a spot of surprise, a gash of daylight that bisects the darkish fir boughs. Creatures galore flock to the sunshine, from delicate Andrena bees that feast on the snowberry blossoms, to monumental pileated woodpeckers that drill excellent rectangles within the trunks of lifeless bushes. Watch the bottom and you will notice lizards, snakes, slugs, and different slippery dudes slinking to the far facet, all the time trying to find an edible morsel.

In winter, after a dusting of snow quiets the forest chatter, the easement highway is a thoroughfare for deer, rabbits, cougar, fox, and porcupines. Their prints inform a narrative of fixed movement, of people trying to find missed berries or semi-tender leaves, of creatures making furtive crossings within the blessed heat of a low-slung solar. Not often seen in winter, however shut by however, are American black bears, Ursus americanus.

The easement road that serves our home belongs to the state and sits on the edge of their land. All the bear had to do was cross the road and walk down the hill.
The easement highway that serves our residence belongs to the state and sits on the sting of their land. All of the bear needed to do was cross the highway and stroll down the hill. All photographs by Rusty Burlew.

Our neighbors the black bears

Washington is residence to solely 30,000 of those magnificent creatures. Black bears are omnivores, which means they eat nearly all the pieces. Whereas most of their eating regimen is plant matter — together with berries, grasses, leaves, and nuts — they admire animal protein once they can discover it. They’re not choosy, typically feeding on bugs, carrion, small mammals, fish, and eggs.2 Such wealthy treats are simple to find whenever you’re geared up with a powerfully fine-tuned sense of scent and have the endurance and bulk to go wherever you please.

We lived peaceably with bears for all these years, however I by no means noticed one on “our facet” of the highway. That’s to not say I haven’t felt their presence. I’ve acknowledged their tracks within the mud and their scat within the snow. I’ve seen them standing on hind legs once I’ve hiked round a bend within the path, and I’ve noticed their telltale scratchings on alder bushes. Excited equestrians have stopped to explain the sow with cubs they simply handed within the woods — a momma that will get greater with each telling. Then, too, I’ve seen these yellow-and-black highway indicators sprinkled across the county, those that warn motorists of a well-liked “Bear Crossing.”

So why, oh why, did I not defend my bees from bears? I’ve revisited that query for the reason that April morning once I found eleven of my fourteen hives decreased to toothpicks. Among the decimated hives contained bees and a few didn’t, however the bear was thorough, leaving no hive unturned.

I suspect that this hive stand, the one closest to the forest, was the bear’s first stop. It held three hives that faced a large open area to the east. Many of the frames were littered along a trail that leads back into the forest.
I think that this hive stand, the one closest to the forest, was the bear’s first cease. It held three hives that confronted a big open space to the east. Lots of the frames had been littered alongside a path that leads again into the forest.

What took her so lengthy?

So how did I survive all these beekeeping years with out a black bear assault? My idea, weak although it could be, was all the time about prevailing winds. I believed the breezes that journey east from the ocean and throughout the Black Hills flowed down the hillside close to our residence. From there, the scent of the hives handed into the gully that carries a modest salmon-bearing creek on a winding path again to the ocean.

As a result of the air appeared to persistently transfer down towards the creek — and never up towards the hills — I assumed the air drainage would possibly hold the hive scent from returning to the forest, thus holding the bears at bay. Perhaps it did. Till it didn’t.

Although you can barely see the trail, it’s under all those frames. I found pieces of frame and comb for long distances, just like bread crumbs.
Though you possibly can barely see the path, it’s beneath all these frames. I discovered items of body and comb for lengthy distances, similar to bread crumbs.

A lot for a idea

We’re often at residence in April, getting ready for the season forward. I are inclined to my bees then, making splits, getting ready honey supers, mending and checking as I am going. I like that point of 12 months once I can merely fiddle concerning the hives, altering, fixing, adjusting. In April, as brood-rearing escalates and the big-leaf maples burst into chartreuse blooms, the hive scent is heavenly. The wealthy proteinaceous odor — paying homage to a butcher store — floats on the air in essentially the most luscious manner, mixing with the aroma of recent nectar and greening leaves.

Final 12 months, as an alternative of April as ordinary, we made a fast journey to South Dakota. We hardly depart residence collectively, so this was uncommon. We checked on the bees, left the canine 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 enjoyable journey, and I found I like driving 80 mph previous gray-green sagebrushes whereas questioning if Montana has multiple gasoline station.

Upon returning residence the next week, I checked on the top-bar bees that stay subsequent to the driveway. They had been single-minded, loaded with pollen and nectar, doing what bees do. They seemed blessedly content material. In truth, I did no additional checking till we emptied the truck, sorted the mail, and stocked the fridge. The 2 hives instantly behind the home had been empty however geared up with swarm lures, so all the pieces appeared regular.

I constructed all my boxes with screws, a decision that paid off in the long run.
I constructed all my packing containers with screws, a call that paid off in the long term.

Quick-lived peace

Two days later, I walked the woodland trails to the 4 small clearings that kind my apiary. By no means have I been so unsurprised as once I found the injury. “I knew it,” I stated aloud to nobody. I had been anticipating at the present time for all these years, and it lastly got here. It was a second of catharsis: the time once I may lastly cease worrying about when it was going to occur. “There now,” I assumed. “It’s achieved.”

The injury was actually spectacular. Brood packing containers had been tossed about and inverted so the underside rails might be ripped cleanly from the frames. Chunks of comb littered the bottom and items of woodenware hung like ornaments from the low limbs of maples and cascara. Hive elements had been scattered alongside the paths and into the woods like bread crumbs.

I had constructed all my packing containers with screws moderately than nails, which was positively a plus. Each final certainly one of my packing containers continues to be sq. and utterly usable, however all the pieces else, together with frames, feeders, quilt packing containers, robbing screens, mouse guards, inside covers, and backside boards had been nothing however reminiscences. The ratcheting tie-downs hung limply from the hive stands, all of a chunk. It seems the bear merely pushed every stack of packing containers proper via the grip of the strap.

The bear ate the remaining sugar patties that were in the feeders and emptied the quilt boxes of cedar chips. The ratcheting tie-downs were still intact. The bear had simply pushed the boxes through the straps and off the hive stand. Easy peasy.
The bear ate the remaining sugar patties that had been within the feeders and emptied the quilt packing containers of cedar chips. The ratcheting tie-downs had been nonetheless intact. The bear had merely pushed the packing containers via the straps and off the hive stand. Simple peasy.

For need of a canine

Wanting again, I can’t assist however surprise if the canine — or lack of a canine — was a part of the bear’s decision-making course of. Q2 is a purebred Australian cattle canine who barks ferociously, scent marks all the pieces, and corrals the native critters into their correct locations. He’s an OCD ACD who surveils the easement a number of occasions every day, separating and sorting every species as he goes.

Deer usually are not allowed within the orchard, raccoons could not enter the backyard, and rabbits could not eat the clover. Even bees are monitored. If one dares to cross the driveway, Q2 swallows it entire. After plowing his nostril into the grass to alleviate the ache, he goes proper again to it.

Did eradicating the canine from wildlife patrol to a scented spa with posh pillows and comfortable blankets trigger my drawback? I assumed pet boarding was ridiculously costly till I misplaced all my bees; now it appears much more preposterous.

Like many of the boxes, this one was flipped over and the bear removed all the bottom bars at once.
Like lots of the packing containers, this one was flipped over and the bear eliminated all the underside bars without delay.

Good fences for dangerous neighbors

When guests to my web site ask how you can defend their bees from bears, I all the time suggest an open loft (for these with solely a hive or two) or an electrical fence. So why didn’t I’ve an electrical fence?

It’s a protracted story, however my historical past with electrical fences shouldn’t be nice. Once we first moved to our current residence, the neighbors didn’t preserve their fences. Days after we planted a collection of fruit bushes, their cattle acquired unfastened and trampled the saplings into the bottom. One other time, visiting cows pressed water-filled cauldrons into our freshly seeded garden. Later, a bull with insanely pendulous testicles crossed a footbridge and pulverized the top of it, macerating the splinters into the muck under.

Once we couldn’t take cattle another second, we put in an electrical fence on our facet. As a result of we weren’t about to purchase a cattle guard, we opened and closed the fence every time we got here or went. Because it rains always, all of the viney issues — particularly the blackberries — develop inches per day. That implies that one thing is all the time twining across the t-posts, hugging the wires, and inflicting a brief.

To maintain the factor working, trimming weeds was a each day battle. If we minimize earlier than breakfast, we may plan on pruning once more earlier than dinner. I discovered to pinpoint the faint, tick, tick, tick of a blade of grass passing the present to floor within the instantaneous earlier than one other one began down the road.

The fence irritated me for different causes, too. I keep in mind a Fourth of July night once I was lighting fireworks for the friends. At one level, as an infinite show blossomed overhead, I saved backing a couple of steps at a time to get a greater view. With my head craned skyward, I backed instantly into the rattling fence. My friends thought I used to be howling on the show, but it surely was actually the ache throughout the again of my legs that precipitated me to bounce and shimmy within the moonlight.

One other time I used to be on my arms and knees weeding when a sizzling wire met my brow. I jerked backward, misplaced my stability, and landed on a bull thistle. It was a joyous second when the final cow was hauled away and we tore down the fence without end.

This photo reminds me of the ring toss game: five points. The lowest of the hive stands, this one is closest to the house but not in view of it.
This photograph jogs my memory of the ring toss sport: 5 factors. The bottom of the hive stands, this one is closest to the home however not in view of it.

Feeding the black bears

Folks hold asking if I’ve rebuilt my apiary. Sorry to say, I haven’t, though I nonetheless have my top-bar bees to maintain me entertained.

Since I can’t come to phrases with electrical fences, rebuilding could be equal to intentionally feeding the bears. Bears, like elephants, always remember, so they are going to be again. I’m certain they now embrace my apiary of their weekly rounds, simply to see what I’m getting ready for his or her subsequent massive feast. I used to be fortunate to have so many bear-free years, but it surely gained’t occur once more. Subsequent time, I would like a plan.

It’s a horrible factor for a beekeeper to say, however the bear expertise was an immense aid. Earlier than then, I anxious about bears always, questioning when it could occur and the way I’d react. So as soon as it occurred, the ready was over. I may sleep at evening with out worrying about bears. Worse, I all of the sudden realized I had free time. It was a present, like somebody eradicating an albatross that I’d been shouldering for years.

On the similar time, I miss the bees. I miss their sound, their scent, their companionship. I miss seeing them filch pollen, circle the hives, guard the doorway, and poop on the automobiles. Such busy creatures remind me to remain targeted and hold my thoughts on the purpose.

Finally, I made a decision to benefit from the timeout and make plans for rebuilding slowly. I nonetheless have many experiments to attempt, concepts to discover, and gear to break. Within the meantime, I’ve plenty of wax-coated fireplace starters all stacked for the winter woodstove. I’ve turned some packing containers into planters, and my husband is constructing a storage unit from the remainder.

A few boxes were empty, and I planned to refurbish them during the summer. As you can see, the bear was not interested in the empties.
Just a few packing containers had been empty, and I deliberate to refurbish them in the course of the summer season. As you possibly can see, the bear was not within the empties.

The last word lesson

I discovered many issues from my bear expertise, however essentially the most startling factor got here not from bears however from beekeepers. After I wrote a brief weblog submit concerning the bear assault on my web site, I used to be deluged — completely overwhelmed — by gives of kit, bees, full colonies, nucs, and queens. Beekeepers from throughout North America and some locations in Europe provided any bee-related factor you possibly can think about a number of occasions over. Some provided to ship, some stated I needed to come and get it, however they had been all spectacularly beneficiant.

Now, I carry these ideas round with me and perceive one thing about beekeepers I’d missed earlier than. The shared issues, the camaraderie, the laughs, and the tears are one thing all of us perceive — emotions no much less intense than our love for the bees themselves.

To the legions of beekeepers on the market, previous and new, skilled or not, I prolong a heartfelt thanks. What higher good friend can one have than a hard-headed, fractious, irascible, opinioned, my-way-or-the-highway, lover of bees with a mushy heart?

The bear signed off on his work. Nice touch.
The bear signed off on his work. Good contact.

Notes and references

  1. The frequent title “Douglas-fir” is hyphenated as a result of it refers to a tree, Pseudotsuga menziesii, that’s not actually a fir. Oddly, the tree is within the pine household, Pinaceae, together with hemlocks (Tsuga).
  2. The Audobon Society Nature Guides. 1992. Western Forests. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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