Bears unwelcome

10 of these

Do all towns have email lists these days? I suppose so. Our town’s list announces church suppers and firewood for sale; requests proposals for mowing the town green; advertises sporting equipment, cars, pianos, and livestock for sale or barter; and invites us to school plays, concerts, farmers markets. Around elections, they bustle with political opinions. And at the hinge of each season, they announce signs of change.

Children returning to school. Geese leaving town. First snowflakes and dicey roads. First robin sighted.

A couple weeks ago, a message on our town email list warned that a bear had been seen on a nearby deck, checking out the empty bird feeders. It’s a bit early for bears to wake up, but the mild winter and the quick snow melt have us on high alert. Bears waking up right now are looking for food, and nothing’s growing yet.

We’ve nothing at all against bears. They belong on the land more than we do. But we don’t really want them to eat our bees, especially since we’ve managed to somehow keep them alive through the winter.*

Every morning since that email posting, we woke up nervously, stopping to peer out the bedroom window even while still half asleep to make sure the hives were still standing.

Once bitten, twice shy.

Of course, we now have the hives protected by electric fence, but last year’s bear knows there were bees here last year and may come sniffing.

So we decided to add one more level of protection by building an “unwelcome mat,” which is essentially a bed of nails. You place the mat on the approach to the hives and hope that any bear who steps on it will be unpleasantly surprised and turn right around (the nails protrude enough to feel uncomfortable, but not enough to permanently hurt the bear).

We built two mats to extend along the length of the eastern side of the bee yard fencing, which we figure is the direction the bear is most likely to come from (the north and south fences are more protected because of the goat pasture and pen, and the west side is protected by the extra gate, our presence, and the road).

When I say “we” I mean that M pounded all those nails (two nails, every two inches, on 10 boards, 12 feet long). He’s the one who set up the clever jig on the deck railing. But I did help him assemble the mats and I used a power tool without harming myself or the mats, so there’s that.

We still check the hives from the bedroom window every morning, but with a little less anxiety. They’ve got their fondant, their fence, and their unwelcome mat. I think we’ve done all we can, and now we just need to wait for spring to bloom.

* Let’s face it: they kept themselves alive through the winter. The only thing we did was not get in their way.

Prepping the railing

The jig


Two mats


Some nights, the bear

Two queendoms

Admit it. You’ve been wondering about the bees, haven’t you? (Please say you have. I like people who take an interest in bees.)

I haven’t talked about them much because, well, as we’ve said before, bees will break your heart. And they do. And they did.

Our little colony didn’t make it through the winter. It could have been the long stretches of seriously cold temperatures. Or it could have been that there weren’t enough of them (after the swarm and loss of the queen) to keep each other warm. Or it could have been a combination of both. But when I went out to check them on a warm day in late winter there was no tell-tale buzzing in the box. I lifted the lid.

Just bodies.

I felt a fresh sadness then even though we pretty much suspected they hadn’t survived. A sadness for their loss. A sadness for not being able to care for them well enough. A grey winter sadness on one of those hopelessly cheerless late winter days when the glisten of winter is gone and spring is still somewhere a few miles down the road, around another bend.

I trudged back to the house and broke the news to M.

He found us new bees. Carniolans from California, by way of New Hampshire. Two packages. Two queens.

We set up a second hive.

We crept closer to spring. There were some warning signs. Postings on the local town email list: bear sightings.

We’ve lived in this house for 21 years now and only just last fall saw our first bear. She (or he) looked like a young one; it ambled out of the valley and through our yard and was gone.


We’d thought about fencing the hives, but since we hadn’t had any bear trouble before and live close to the road, we hemmed and hawed about it. It would be another thing to do, to maintain, to deal with when checking the hives. Maybe later.

On April 26 we brought home the bees. We installed them in their hives. It went (nearly) like clockwork. We fairly congratulated ourselves on how well we’d done. We were getting the hang of this beekeeping thing. The bees were gentle. It felt nice to see them buzzing all around us as we filled their feeders with sugar water to keep them going until things began to bloom.

We tucked them in for the night, promising to visit in a week to refill the feeders and to check for eggs.

Two nights later, M let Gryfe out for a goodnight pee and the dog went nuts barking. M shone a flashlight in the direction of the hives and saw the disaster. We didn’t see what had happened, but we knew what had happened..

The damage

We went out then, in the dark, and collected who we could by flashlight. Hive pieces were all over the ground. Bees were confused and scattered. We had no idea if we’d saved the queens or not. We hurriedly reassembled what we could inside the brand new (electrified) goat pasture fence. The pasture fence was so new, we hadn’t even set the new fence charger up yet; we did that in the dark, too, with bees frantically buzzing all around us.

We were covered in sweat and sugar water. It was dismal.

Still, we went to bed hopeful. There were a lot of bees left. Maybe we’d saved the queens. Maybe they weren’t all too confused.

The next morning we went right to the bedroom window to be sure the bear hadn’t broken through the fence. All was fine. We saw bees coming and going from the hive.

I put on my bee suit a day later, lit up the smoker, opened the hives and refilled their syrup.


They were active. They were striped and beautiful. They were coming and going, beginning to forage in their new valley. And things looked good, promising.

But they were in free fall. We suspected it, and then we knew it. Fewer and fewer bees emerged. We checked the hives earlier this week. Mostly bodies, with a few slow, confused bees wandering around the frames. The queens were either lost or killed or too stressed to lay eggs.

Now the hives are sitting there, safe behind the fence and the only thing we can do is clean them out, find new bees, and start again.

Because this family needs bees. This little farm needs bees. This valley needs bees. This world needs bees.

We need bears, too. Just not on the bee side of the fence.