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A Bear Kills an Apiary in Virginia, Leaving a Detailed Photographic Record

By July 15, 2021No Comments

The destructive drama began this spring when I arrived at one of my more secluded apiaries. For reference, the apiary appeared as shown in Figure 1 a couple of years earlier when the apiary had only three two-foot long top-bar hives on two elevated hive stands.

Figure 2 (left) shows the view from where I back the bee truck into the apiary and work from the convenience of the tailgate. At the time of the picture, the destroyed apiary had four young, growing colonies: one already occupying much of a five-foot long top-bar hive, and three colonies in two-foot top-bar hives. Later in the spring, I expected to switch the three two-footers into five-foot long hive bodies to accommodate their growth. Or I could split them all to 8-10 colonies in three-foot long hives, haul them to cotton, and let them grow for most of the summer to strong colonies, well prepared for winter.

Something demolished those plans, either vandals or a bear. Vandalism was unlikely given the isolated location of the apiary and the severity of the destruction with all the hives on the ground.

Even before entering the apiary, Figure 2 (left) has a sizable clue incriminating a bear. The two-foot long hive body apparently dragged away from the concentrated mess in the distance is one signature of a bear. Bears typically drag away hive equipment, which with frame hives could be a super of honey, or maybe one with brood. Bears eat both honeycomb and brood comb, and even more as we will see. Approaching the hive, on the ground were top bars, comb sides up (see Figure 2, right). Only comb attachments remained on them. They seemed to form a trail straight to the demolished apiary.

A bear had destroyed all four colonies (see Figures 3 and 4). Virtually all combs were missing. An apiary without combs is stunning, but this experience was not my first encounter with a bear killing one of my top-bar apiaries. Figuring some of the rear volume of the hives had no combs, and stored surplus honey, and with the top bars on the ground with consumed comb, I estimated the bear had eaten about 60 combs. (They were good straight combs, built from foundation strips and very valuable to a top-bar hive beekeeper.) The loss would be roughly like losing 60 deep frames with combs. For beekeepers salvaging the equivalent in expensive frames and foundation, the task would be debilitating too, a time-consuming job just to get back to being even, not including replacing other damaged equipment or the bee loss. Among the scattered equipment, a pile of six brood combs somehow remained together, but flopped over and ruined (see Figure 5, left). These combs will become important.

After figuring out the fate of the missing combs in the carnage, we come to the other concurrent question: Where are the bees? From four fast-growing top-bar colonies in the spring, the once vibrant colonies had many thousands of bees. After the bear pulled down the two-foot long hive bodies and gouged out all their combs, by chance one two-foot long hive body came to rest in a vertical position. The empty hive formed a “half” hollow, a shelter for the surviving bees as if all were from one communal colony amid the destruction. Figure 5 (right) shows the bees clustered in the hive body. (The hive body is in Figure 3, at the lower right.) To recover the bees for some kind of colony, I knew a complete set of combs could not fit in the hive with so many bees.

Aboard the new bee truck, I am trying to equip it for most any problem found in my out-apiaries. My last bear-killed apiary was over ten years ago, and that day I was not prepared for another one. I could improvise what I needed from spring management equipment already aboard. I had empty top-bar combs (see Figure 6), but I was running low on top bars with foundation strips that make the bees build straight combs. I had a substitute for them. First though we need to understand the bee situation, and then the equipment concerns will follow.

Before moving the hive body with bees in this condition, here is some advanced and subtle bee biology that becomes relevant. The festoons of bees in the hive body appear like a swarm cluster. These refugee bees from bear destruction were not like “swarm” bees routinely encountered. I could see the bees were not engorged with honey, nothing like a regular spring swarm. (I always examine for level of engorgement in these nonreproductive-swarm situations.)

When the bees sense the tension along the festoon is gone, they can leave the cluster. They may burst into flight, like bees from a swarm a minute before launch. Or the bees might just crawl about, like bees from a swarm not preparing to launch.

When I turn the hive body horizontal, the tension in the festoons would drop to zero. The bees could all erupt in flight or just stay in the hive, which was my preference. If flying, they could be quite defensive, because they were not engorged. With their coming behavior unknown, I had the top-bar combs ready. I also had top bars with just the remnants of the foundation part of the comb running down the center on the top bar, the substitutes for the ones with foundation strips. Top bars with that center “wax bead” are not enough to guide the bees to build straight combs (a common and recurring error). Place that top bar between two top bars with straight combs, and that forces the bees to build the new comb straight. Alternating top bars with straight combs with ones lacking combs gave the needed clustering space while letting the bees function more like a colony. I had all the top bars in another hive body on the hive stand beside where I would place the vertical hive body with the bees.

A couple other concerns to consider. The bees were remarkably calm, suggesting they might have a queen. Queenless bees should exhibit more scent fanning, including some bees crawling aimlessly, more like a queenless swarm whose bees have lost the memory of their parent colony and are thus stranded at a bivouac site. Or it could be these behaviors need more time before they become expressed. Searching for a queen now is not a consideration because other indirect methods can detect her presence before seeing her brood (like giving a comb with young brood and after 24 hours looking for queen cells).

Another concern is absconding. Queenright bees under traumatic stress — the sudden loss of combs certainly qualifies — may leave. While rare for our honey bee, Apis mellifera, they certainly have the behavioral genes for it, like other routine absconders in the genus Apis: the impressive giant honey bee, Apis dorsata; the sister hive bee to our bee, A. cerana; the dwarf honey bee, A. florea, and others. Giving a couple of brood combs to the traumatized bees from the bear attack should stabilize them from absconding, and then check for a queen as mentioned above.

Upon placing the hive body up on the elevated hive stand, bees began flying straight up, right when the festoon tension released the bees. The number of flying bees was about a quarter of the cluster. More would have flown, but they were buried in other bees. Immediately, I began putting in the combs, gently working them into the thick layer of bees across the bottom of the hive. The flying quickly diminished. The bees now ran up the combs. When given a choice, bees would rather crawl than fly. If I had to dash back to the bee truck, grab top-bar combs and other bars without combs, a confused swarm cloud circling the hive would confront my return. Most likely, the bees would reenter the hive, unless a queen took flight and a cluster formed up in a tree somewhere, complicating matters. Thinking ahead reduces the drama.

While the bee death was definitely troubling, a dispassionate examination of the destruction strongly suggested the bear damage occurred the previous night, and only during that night. A closer examination of the pile with the six brood combs laid together (see Figure 5, left) revealed live bees in the intervening gaps between flopped-over combs. Scattered on the ground were three or four small chunks of honeycomb. The pieces appeared fresh, again pointing to the bear foraging here during the previous night.

From my extensive game camera surveillance, I know skunks, possums, and raccoons routinely patrol my apiaries and would have quickly removed the little pieces of honeycomb. The evidence, taken together, all said the bear would return that night. I could predict the exact return point –– that pile of brood combs. With a crowded day of bee work in a spring swarm season in different out-apiaries, I could only prepare and deploy two infrared game cameras and be long gone well before nightfall. I had to work quickly while trying not to touch much of anything to minimize my scent contamination in the apiary.

I aimed the cameras so their fields of view crossed at the brood combs, but not from opposite sides where one infrared flash could over-expose the image of the other camera. I knew about this problem from setting up multiple game cameras in my apiaries. Figure 4 shows the firing orientation of the cameras, giving also good coverage of the debris field. Camera 1 fires across the middle of …

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