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Lawmakers considering early bear hunt to protect beehives

Beekeepers have to keep their honeybees healthy against a lot of challenges: deadly mites, pesticides and harsh winters.

Once they make it to the spring though, it doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Bears are emerging from hibernation at their hungriest.

And beeyards are like a dinner bell.

"It's really discouraging to see all your hard work and livestock destroyed."

Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill (H.B. 5226) that could allow beekeepers and hunters to work together to protect honeybees from bears. 

Commercial beekeeper Kirk Jones has 6,000 bee colonies in Northern Michigan.

Jones is the founder of Sleeping Bear Farms in Benzie County. He started noticing more bears in the region six years ago.

“We started getting bears eating our beehives. And sometimes in the spring, we might have 30 or 40 destroyed hives. And sometimes, the losses were devastating. It’s really discouraging to see all your hard work and livestock destroyed,” he says.

He remembers the first time he saw severe damage caused by a bear to 50 of his hives.

“The landowner called me and asked me why I had bee equipment strewn out over an acre of land. So, I drove in and there weren’t any bees left in my area. They were all rolled down the hill or up the hill into the woods. And it really looked like a tornado,” he says.

An expensive taste

Mike Hansen is the state apiarist. He says the destruction bears can cause is costly.

“And a single colony with the woodenware, with the wax, with the bees and everything, you're talking $200, $300 investment per colony. So it's very expensive when bears get a taste for the bees,” says Hansen.

Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill that would address the issue of bears damaging crops.

It would amend an existing deer crop damage law.

State Representative Ed McBroom (R - Dickinson, Delta, and Menominee) introduced the bill.

“What we’re allowing in this is if the farmer can show the department he has a serious bear damage problem that the department would give him a permit to allow somebody who’s licensed to hunt, say in September or October, to come out to the farm in July or August and fulfill their license early,” says McBroom.

This isn’t just about beekeepers, but any kind of crop damage.

The bill would not increase bear licenses or harvest additional bears, and there’s a limit. Of all the bear hunting permits, only five percent can be for crop damage.

DNR officials say they’re neutral on the bill. They say nonlethal methods are still the first option to deal with a nuisance bear. But the agency can kill problem bears as a last resort.

The two main beekeeper associations in Michigan support the bill. They say it would give them another tool to deal with bears.

Keeping bears out with fences

Kirk Jones prefers a nonlethal method first. He uses high-voltage electric fences around some of his bee yards. He puts them in hot spots where bears show up.

“We thought it would be the best course to protect the bees and not hurt the bears, and as it turned out, our practice of putting fences up is working quite well,” he says.

But he says it’s not a perfect solution. Bears can sometimes get through a fence, for example, if the battery runs low.

Michigan State University researchers tested these fences, and they found they were effective at keeping bears out of bee yards.

But fence materials cost $300 plus annual maintenance. Some beekeepers would like the DNR to subsidize the fences, like Wisconsin does.

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