Tuesday July 02, 2013 | 07:53 AM

My first image of a bear was Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey pot. Writer Alan Alexander Milne based the lovable teddy bear of his children’s books on a black bear, like the kind we have here in Maine. Unlike Winnie, his real life counterparts are very interested in those “honey pots” set up in people’s backyards as much for the bee larvae as the honey. They have woken from quite the slumber and they want their protein.

Recently I have received a slew of emails pertaining to black bear sightings by fellow members of the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association and heard mention from folks in the community. This surprised me, having not heard about bears in the area the last couple years. Not wanting to be an alarmist, but thinking this might be a situation The Root’s readers (especially those with bees) might want more information on, I connected with Randy Cross of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, one of the most respected black bear biologists in the country.

There have been a number of bear sightings this year in Cumberland County. I’m wondering if these sightings are representative of other counties in Maine, or if it is that Cumberland is just more populated and has more beekeepers?

Not sure how many beekeepers are in different parts of the state but there are certainly lots of bear/bee conflicts statewide. Perhaps, the biggest problem is that apiarists in Cumberland County have been able to enjoy working with relatively few bear problems for many years with unprotected hives and are slow to adjust. The bears are there now and the sooner the beekeepers protect their hives the better. It’s a gamble that will be lost much more than in the past.

What advice do you give someone who spots a bear in his/her backyard? What’s the most important thing for someone to do/not do?

Most important not to corner the bear or approach too closely. However, also important to not allow the bear to feel comfortable in a backyard setting – So, need to make loud noises and scare the bear off. If it does not respond to this treatment, then the bear may be dangerous and might need to be dealt with by local warden. The warden should be notified in any encounter like this so that they are aware of these type problems and their severity.

If a beekeeper’s hives are hit by a bear, I have heard it is smart to move the remaining hives a couple miles to a new location or they will suffer the same fate. Is that true?

Most likely … might even if they are moved.

What about starting in the same spot the following spring?

Pretty high risk unless the bear was removed in the harvest or struck in a road and killed by a car. An electric fence or sturdy fence enclosure would definitely be worth the expense if keeping them there is preferable. Honestly, there is no place in Maine that is risk free at this time to keep unprotected beehives. The number of bears in Maine has recently increased and they have infiltrated all parts of Maine (at least there is no place other than offshore islands that I would dare say is totally risk free).

Any idea how that myth (re: bears and their honey pots) got started?

They love honey. I just think that most people don’t recognize the highly digestible value of the brood comb.

(Photo) Tim Forrester, a biologist and beekeeper with a sedated black bear during a field excursion with Randy Cross. Do not under any circumstances attempt this on your own!

Forrester has worked closely with a number of federal and state environmental agencies over the past 14 years. He has seen black bears on the wild blueberry barrens in Washington County, Maine (where putting up electric fencing around hives during pollination season has been necessary for years).

“Every year this topic comes up and I hope we can stay ahead of the bears,” said Forrester.“First lines of defense are key. Take down your bird feeders, secure garbage etc., wire fences will help, electric fences are the best.”

Karen Thurlow-Kimball of Brown’s Bee Farm in North Yarmouth, Maine recommends an electrical system with a solar fence charger, which does not require any heavy batteries or recharging in the field. “With this unit (described below) I do not have to worry about dead batteries or the need to hook my truck up to charge them while in the bee yard,” said Kimball. Here is a link to the charger  (Kimball recommends watching the site's video “How to get your PRS Solar Energizer ready for fencing season”) and fencing (Kimball said it will hold back a bear and is simple to put up). She also recommends extra posts (one for each corner or extra for sharp angles).
For smaller areas, Kimball runs this type of fence charger with wire. She said it is a little more time consuming to set up.

Garrett Keniston, who has kept bees in Cumberland County for four years, is not as confident in solar powered electrical fencing. “I haven't had any experience with bears in particular, but through farming experience I have recently had a lot of education about electrical fencing and netting and their practical uses,” said Keniston. “Those solar units just don't have enough umph to get the job done with bears. The system I use to keep my bees safe along with some other livestock is rated at 6 joules output. I haven't been able to find a solar system rated at much more than half a joule. I don't believe that would be enough to keep a thick skinned hungry bear out.”

“Another problem with solar chargers is if we have several days of nasty weather, they will run their battery down and leave you unprotected,” Keniston said. “If you can, a hard wired system is best, next a battery powered system, but you still have to keep after the battery charging. I would only choose solar if you are in an extremely remote area, or if it is unlikely that bears will be the issue and you are just trying to keep skunks and other critters out.

As with Randy Cross, Keniston urges if a bear does become a problem contact the warden service immediately. Maine Warden Dispatch Service information can be found here.

For more information about black bears check out the Wildlife Research Foundation’s site and this National Geographic site on black bears.

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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