This is a story about complacency, rationalization, and ignoring the advice I give to others. It’s about a black 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 black 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 black 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.
Two days later, I walked the woodland trails to the four small clearings that form my apiary. Never have I been so unsurprised 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 to relieve the pain, he goes right back to it.
Did removing the dog from wildlife patrol to a scented spa with posh pillows and cushy blankets cause my problem? I thought pet boarding was ridiculously expensive until I lost all my bees; now it seems even more preposterous.
Good fences for bad neighbors
When visitors to my website ask how to protect their bees from black bears, I always recommend an open loft (for those with only a hive or two) or an electric fence. So why didn’t I have an electric fence?
It’s a long story, but my history with electric fences is not pleasant. When we first moved to our present home, the neighbors didn’t maintain their fences. Days after we planted a selection of fruit trees, their cattle got loose and trampled the saplings into the ground. Another time, visiting cows pressed water-filled cauldrons into our freshly seeded lawn. Later, a bull with insanely pendulous testicles crossed a footbridge and pulverized the end of it, macerating the splinters into the muck below.
When we couldn’t take cattle one more second, we installed an electric fence on our side. Because we weren’t about to buy a cattle guard, we opened and closed the fence whenever we came or went. Since it rains constantly, all the viney things — especially the blackberries — grow inches per day. That means that something is always twining around the t-posts, hugging the wires, and causing a short.
To keep the thing working, trimming weeds was a daily battle. If we cut before breakfast, we could plan on pruning again before dinner. I learned to pinpoint the faint, tick, tick, tick of a blade of grass passing the current to ground in the instant before another one started down the line.
The fence irritated me for other reasons, too. I remember a Fourth of July evening when I was lighting fireworks for the guests. At one point, as an enormous display blossomed overhead, I kept backing a few steps at a time to get a better view. With my head craned skyward, I backed directly into the damn fence. My guests thought I was howling at the display, but it was really the pain across the back of my legs that caused me to dance and shimmy in the moonlight.
Another time I was on my hands and knees weeding when a hot wire met my forehead. I jerked backward, lost my balance, and landed on a bull thistle. It was a joyous moment when the last cow was hauled away and we tore down the fence forever.
Feeding the black bears
People keep asking if I’ve rebuilt my apiary. Sorry to say, I haven’t, although I still have my top-bar bees to keep me entertained.
Since I can’t come to terms with electric fences, rebuilding would be equivalent to deliberately feeding the bears. Bears, like elephants, never forget, so they will be back. I’m sure they now include my apiary in their weekly rounds, just to see what I’m preparing for their next big feast. I was lucky to have so many bear-free years, but it won’t happen again. Next time, I need a plan.
It’s a terrible thing for a beekeeper to say, but the bear experience was an immense relief. Before then, I worried about bears constantly, wondering when it would happen and how I would react. So once it happened, the waiting was over. I could sleep at night without worrying about bears. Worse, I suddenly realized I had free time. It was a gift, like someone removing an albatross that I’d been shouldering for years.
At the same time, I miss the bees. I miss their sound, their smell, their companionship. I miss seeing them filch pollen, circle the hives, guard the entrance, and poop on the cars. Such busy creatures remind me to stay focused and keep my mind on the goal.
Ultimately, I decided to enjoy the timeout and make plans for rebuilding slowly. I still have many experiments to try, ideas to explore, and equipment to damage. In the meantime, I have lots of wax-coated fire starters all stacked for the winter woodstove. I’ve turned some boxes into planters, and my husband is building a storage unit from the rest.
The ultimate lesson
I learned many things from my bear experience, but the most startling thing came not from bears but from beekeepers. After I wrote a short blog post about the bear attack on my website, I was deluged — absolutely overwhelmed — by offers of equipment, bees, complete colonies, nucs, and queens. Beekeepers from all over North America and a few places in Europe offered any bee-related thing you can imagine multiple times over. Some offered to deliver, some said I had to come and get it, but they were all spectacularly generous.
Now, I carry those thoughts around with me and understand something about beekeepers I’d missed before. The shared problems, the camaraderie, the laughs, and the tears are something we all understand — feelings no less intense than our love for the bees themselves.
To the legions of beekeepers out there, old and new, experienced or not, I extend a heartfelt thank you. What better friend can one have than a hard-headed, fractious, irascible, opinioned, my-way-or-the-highway, lover of bees with a soft center?
Notes and references
- The common name “Douglas-fir” is hyphenated because it refers to a tree, Pseudotsuga menziesii, that is not really a fir. Oddly, the tree is in the pine family, Pinaceae, along with hemlocks (Tsuga).
- The Audobon Society Nature Guides. 1992. Western Forests. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Honey Bee Suite