One look across Paul Gregory’s bee yard near Arborg might spark the urge to check the sky. Despite the cliché, it does look like a weak tornado might have blown through.
Across the yard, previously neat stacks of beehive boxes lie strewn. Frames are damaged, licked clean and scattered across the ground as if in some apiarist equivalent of 52-card pickup.
It’s a mess.
It’s also a mess that Gregory has, unfortunately, become more than familiar with this year. His beekeeping operation, Interlake Honey Producers, has seen around 35 bear hits since spring, he said.
“The Manitoba crop insurance adjusters are just running from beekeeper to beekeeper,” he said. “We’re a half-mile from the town of Arborg, wide-open country, and it just seems that they’re really travelling.”
Why it matters: Honey operations have seen more pressure from bears this year, a consequence that has spun off from the drought conditions gripping the province.
Manitoba’s beekeepers say bear issues have been on the rise this year, generally considered to be yet one more consequence of drought conditions that have the province in a stranglehold.
Both annual crops and forage have felt the sting of drought this year, with feed and pasture supplies now reaching a breaking point in some regions. While swaths of western and central Manitoba have now topped 80 per cent of normal rainfall since the start of May, the wettest parts of the province have just squeaked past average, while agro-meteorologists have noted that much of that rain has been spotty and thunderstorm-driven, rather than widespread soaking rains.
Gregory’s area, meanwhile, is ground zero for some of the worst conditions in the province. Swaths of the Interlake currently sit in a state of agricultural disaster, while lack of forage, pasture and water have led to unprecedented summer cattle sales in the region.
Provincial apiarist Rhéal Lafrenière said there has been a definite jump in bear damage stories this year, including some producers who have rarely, if ever, had previous problems.
“We’re hearing beekeepers that have had yards where they’ve had a fence up there and they’ve never had issues with it and they’re having bear attacks in those yards,” he said.
Aside from honey, bears are also looking for the brood itself, according to Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association president Ian Steppler. Those larvae provide much-needed protein, on top of carbohydrates from the honey, he said, making hives a tempting target for a bear’s diet.
“Bears will go in and they’ll actually just destroy the nest to get down into the heart of a nest and pretty much kill it from the inside out,” he said. “It just makes a terrible mess.”
Wildlife damage claims on honey hives are already creeping close to the five-year average, with lots of season left to go, according to data from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC). It has seen 87 claims, including those in the process of being adjusted, so far this year. On average, the province posts around 90 claims a season.
The reports come after an above-average claim year in 2020. Last year, beekeepers filed 117 damage claims.
Gregory estimates that he has lost about 75 of his hives in the course of the hits this year.
In terms of percentage of his hives, that number is small, he acknowledged. More than the direct damage, however, the hits have come with labour-intensive cleanup, as well as extra effort to rehabilitate any frames a bear has gotten into so that bees will once again move in.
Gregory typically expects a hive to bring in $200-300 of honey and, while insurance covers loss of equipment and stock, he says the loss of crop itself is an economic hit.
This year, he added, that hit might be on the higher end of the spectrum, with the price of honey at a high.
According to the Manitoba Beekeepers’ Association, producers have locked in some fall contracts over $2.40 a pound. In comparison, the province estimated honey prices closer to $1.65 a pound as of the beginning of 2020.
The same lack of rainfall that has ratcheted up farmer anxiety has done nothing good for the natural bear food supply.
Janine Wilmot, human-wildlife conflict biologist with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, says bears of been more of a problem in general, and not just in apiaries. The province has also seen more bears in people’s yards and in campgrounds.
“The dry conditions that are abundant around most of the province are definitely contributing,” she said. “In years when there are drier conditions and there’s less natural food available for black bears, they’re going to move around more on the landscape. They’re going to be looking to alternate food sources.”
Weather earlier in 2021 might also be a factor. Late frosts this year were likely not friendly to wild berry-bearing plants, according to beekeepers.
“Normally, we’d be getting into saskatoons and raspberries and everything else that they’ll go for… I think there are some cranberries out there, but really there’s not much for berries,” Gregory said.
At the same time, producers like Gregory and Steppler say, the last mild winter — dry as it was — was actually good for the bear population.
David Koroscil, manager of claims services with MASC, says the corporation has noticed more bears in recent years. The trend is noticeable enough that they have had warned adjusters to be alert while in the field.
The province does not do population surveys for black bears, making it difficult to substantiate whether the number of bears has, in fact, jumped, Wilmot said, although she added that things like survivability do play into situations like what beekeepers are currently seeing.
There are also no surveys of wild berries, Wilmot said, making it difficult to say for sure whether frost contributed to low natural bear feed. At the same time, she has heard anecdotal comments from department staff that line up with reports from the industry.
“That’s kind of our feeling as well, that the late frost could have impacted food availability,” she said.
Tame fruit farms in Manitoba are certainly feeling the strain. Fruit growers and U-pick farms have reported significant losses and low production from both drought and winterkill, credited to the same late frost, this year.
Protective measures that would normally ward away bears have also been less effective due to drought, both industry and Wilmot say.
Most producers in bear country do put up electric fences around bee yards, according to Steppler and Gregory. Dry conditions, however, have made grounding those electric fences a challenge, and bears are bypassing wires that would otherwise give them a jolt.
“They’re walking right through the high amperage fence because it’s not grounded properly,” Steppler said. “It’s been a bit of a challenge for a lot of guys.”
Gregory, for his part, has added multiple grounding rods into his system, in an effort to boost the current after running into that problem.
“If the grass is wet, then he’s going to get a good jolt, but we just haven’t had heavy dews or any rain here in the last month,” he said.
Bears are also getting creative, he noted. In one case this year, his bee yard was hit after a bear pushed a pallet over the wiring, in order to bypass the shock.
How far is far enough?
Beekeepers have also expressed frustration with what they say is a release of captured problem bears too close to their operations.
“Bears can travel long distances and they seem to be either dropping them off right in the middle of a beekeeper’s apiary or on the outskirts and the bears are just migrating back into trouble zones,” Steppler said.
Wilmot says the general practice is to release animals about 60 kilometres away from the site where they were captured and 20 kilometres from any developed area.
The department also takes things like food supply into account when deciding on a release site, she added.
“We make every attempt to release bears into an area where there’s abundant natural foods available to them,” she said. “Of course, in a year like this where there really aren’t abundant foods available, it becomes much more challenging.”
Wilmot urged producers to maximize their electric fencing, if they haven’t already, and to seek resources on how to mitigate bear problems.
One such resource is put out through the Living with Wildlife Foundation, and is available through the province’s website, manitoba.ca/human-wildlife, she said.
Among the recommendations, the foundation suggests at least a five-wire electric fence, alternating hot and grounded, with a minimum 0.7 joules, Wilmot said. For dry conditions, she noted, those recommendations extend to at least three six- to 10-foot grounding rods (placed 10 feet apart.)
Gregory, for his part, has now turned to spike boards around his bee yard, although he says he has seen bears that have figured out how to move those boards out of the way.
“It’s crazy,” he said.