Beekeepers in eastern Kentucky being threatened by black bears

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife/Courtesy of Roger Baird

Beekeepers' colonies in eastern Kentucky have recently been harmed by black bears, destroying hives and seeing the bees eaten. Local beekeeper Roger Baird is worried that trend could soon spread into this area.

Now, let me tell you 'bout the bears and the bees.

That's the message of awareness about a problem facing beekeepers in Kentucky that Nancy's Roger Baird hopes to get across, as he sees the potential for harm to spread into this area with black bears breaking into hives and eating the bees.

"It hasn't hit this area yet, but eastern Kentucky has been hit pretty hard with (this problem)," said Baird, president of the Lake Cumberland Beekeepers Association.

Unless, of course, you county neighboring McCreary County as "this area," per se.

"I know somebody in McCreary County, their father-in-law got hit with a bear (invasion) a couple of years ago," said Baird. "I wanted to get awareness out that bears are a problem for more than the average homeowner."

To that end, the Lake Cumberland Beekeepers Association had representatives from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife agency come in to speak at a meeting Monday night, held regularly each month (except November and December) at the Pulaski County Cooperative Extension Service located at 28 Parkway Court in Somerset.

Baird estimated that there are "close to 50 to 60 beekeepers" in Pulaski County, though not all of them are members of the association.

"At one time, the Lake Cumberland Beekeepers Association had approximately 80 members, including members from Rockcastle County, Casey County, and Wayne County," said Baird.

Talk about bears being lured into residential and commercial areas has not been uncommon in this area over the years, with the threat of bears getting into garbage cans, causing damage, and posing a possible threat to humans.

Bears, a rarity in Kentucky 20 years ago, are now more plentiful as they have migrated from surrounding states. Those who encounter a bear are advised not to interact with it, to stay in one's car if possible, and to not attract bears by leaving out food. The website for Fish and Wildlife explains that intentionally feeding bears is illegal because it is not only dangerous for humans, but bad for the bears. That's because bears which have been conditioned to be fed by humans have much shorter lives on average, as they are often killed by poachers or are struck by vehicles due to being closer to busy roadways.

A bear sighting can be called into the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Department's Fish and Wildlife's phone number for information is 1-800-858-1549.

Bears are attracted to beekeeping set-ups, as one might expect. However, the reason why might be more unexpected -- it's not for the honey. That isn't what the bears eat, said Baird. Instead, they eat the bees themselves.

"Unlike Winnie-the-Pooh, black bears eat the bees and larvae, so the hive cannot recover," said Baird.

With the bee population worldwide in a fragile state, this doesn't help the situation. It's not as harmful to bees as chemicals and pesticides used on farms, which Baird said are the primary threat to the number of bees in the world, but the ones being cultivated by beekeepers serve a valuable purpose, and are threatened by the invasion of the black bears.'

Baird said one reason there is a need to bring about awareness for honeybees is that one colony can house 40,000 to 50,000 bees.

A number of other critters cause problems as well. Varroa mites infest the bee colonies and suck their blood; the wax moth can destroy the wax as well as the wooden frames containing the bees. Then there are skinks, which, like the bears, eat the bees.

"They can clean a hive out in no time," said Baird of skunks. "I've had beekeepers lose two or three hives this past winter to skunks."

Not only is it environmentally a problem, but it's a costly one for the beekeeper as well. Replacing just one hive can run up to $500 or more; the boxes cost roughly $100, and buying the bees can be around $175 to $200, "depending on where one gets them." Then, said Baird, "you've got to replace the frame and the wax."

Bears can be deterred by electric fences; Baird called that "one of the most effective things" one can do, as long as it's properly installed.

Otherwise, just making the hives inaccessible to bears is the best strategy to avoid these problems.

"(Electric fences) are the biggest deterrent, unless you want to put (the hive) on the side of a cliff," said Baird.

Don't dismiss the possibility of this problem becoming more widespread in Pulaski County, warned Baird; it could happen here just as in eastern Kentucky.

"The bears are already here," he said. "It's just a matter of time before somebody gets hit."