Maine is bear country.
Our state has the largest black bear population (23,000 estimated) in the United States (Matula, 1997), east of the Mississippi River. Bear habitat is forest land and Maine’s 32,000-square-mile area is 95% forested with a mixed growth of evergreens and hardwoods. About 80% of the State’s forested land is privately owned timberland, and open areas of farmland are concentrated in central, northeastern and southwestern portions of the State. Bears require forest habitat for food, cover and winter shelter and are omnivorous, meaning they eat most any available animal or vegetable matter. Bears are opportunistic feeders. Of all the food supplies, beechnuts are perhaps the most important as a late fall source of nutrition prior to hibernation. Cultivated crops and honeybees are other examples of food sources that bears will consume when available.
Bear management is under the control of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with the Wildlife Division having prime responsibility for research, management and regulation. The Wildlife Division maintains a system of research and management that documents information gathered to assess the status of the bear population and habitat. In addition, the Wildlife Division has established three long-term study areas in Maine. The Division’s bear management program has proven to be very successful for long-term population management. It accommodates the social concerns of the public while maintaining biological objectives. The program tries to achieve a balance of the resource and hunting demands. For example, in other parts of the United States bears have become a major public nuisance problem and hunting has declined due to social opposition and human population growth. Hunting in Maine is a huge thriving recreational economy which generates about $500 million per year in total economic output, (Teisal and Boyle, 1998). Bear hunting alone generates $12 million in hunting-related expenditures from residents and non-residents. Over 60 percent of the bears harvested are by non-residents with the assistance of registered Maine guides. The hunting season varies with the type of hunting allowed, from late August through November annually. The annual harvest of black bears varies from 2,500 to 3,500 animals, about 10 percent of the estimated population.
Honeybees and bears do not mix, and most beekeepers do not like bears when they experience a problem with them. Most damage to beehives occurs in blueberry regions of downeast Maine during crop pollination. The 50,000 hives of bees concentrated in blueberry fields during bloom offer bears a great opportunity to raid and feed upon them shortly after emergence from their winter dens. Like I said, they are opportunists! Bears also take advantage of beehives in northern and western Maine when hives are moved to wild raspberry stands for honey production. The raspberry stands naturally occur in the early stages of the succession process after timber has been harvested. In Aroostook county, bears feed upon hives, located in fields of clover and canola, that are placed there for honey production and crop pollination. Many colony losses are the result of the beekeeper’s failure to observe bear signs and erect an electric fence prior to damage. Often, the destruction of bee hives is attributed to a ranging bear. Bears can travel up to 50 miles, so live trapping and relocating bears in not always a solution to the problem.
Beekeepers in Maine have a long historical account of bear damage and at one time the Maine Department of Agriculture provided an indemnity for hives damaged by bears. The program was never adequately funded and like many “bounty claims,” it was abused and the program was terminated. As pointed out earlier, blueberry culture has created a significant demand for crop pollination utilizing honeybees over the past 20 years.
The plant’s bloom period is rather long and honeybee colonies are in fields for about one month. The high concentration and long duration of beehives situated in blueberry fields has provided bears with a fantastic foraging opportunity. Since some beekeepers nationwide have experienced bear damage to their hives, it has brought about more protective control measures through research and electric fencing turns out to be the best defense, (Calderone 2000). Flottum provided data in 2002 that a $200 investment in equipment for a sideline apiary in bear country would be the first capital expenditure to make and a good investment at that.
About 15 years ago I experienced my first bear damage of five colonies with a full crop of honey, an estimated value at that time of $1,000. A $200 electric fence would have saved the day. I do not normally have bear damage in Belgrade, but every 10-15 years I see signs of bear on my farm and I have an electric fence that I can put up before damage occurs. The investment in an electric fence is long lasting. Therefore, perhaps we as beekeepers must be proactive and advocate the use of electric fences to protect our beehives if we indeed are in bear country or on the margin like I am. We cannot advocate for the killing or destruction of a resource that currently is well regulated and managed by science that serves as a significant economic value to the State of Maine. The current annual loss of beehives to bear damage is not well documented, nor is it probably significant to the total honeybee colony management in Maine. Remember, Maine is “Bear Country.”
Calderone, Nicholas, 2000, “Managing Varmints and Bears,” Bee Culture, Vol. 128, #9, pp 23-25.
Flottum, Kim, 2002, “More Black Bears,” Bee Culture, Vol. 130, #10, pp 29-31.
Matula, George J., Editor 1997, “Wildlife Division, Research and Management Report,” Maine Dept of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife., pp 13-18.
Reiling, S.D., M.F. Teisel and K.J. Boyle, 1991, “Highlights from the 1988 Survey of Bear Hunting in Maine,” Dept. Agr and Res, Economics Staff Paper Series in Resource Economics, ARE 430, Univ. of Maine, pp 6.
This article was originally published in the November 2003 issue of The Bee Line; voting on the Maine Bear Hunting Ban Initiative is slated for the November 4, 2014 ballot [that is, a ban solely on the methods of hunting via baiting, hounding and trapping].