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In Montana, Beekeepers Protect Their Hives With Fences — And Guns

Black bear stock photo.
Over the past five years, black bears have damaged more than 600 hives across the state, costing beekeepers nearly $150,000.

As anyone who's read Winnie the Pooh will tell you, bears love honey. But in Montana, that love of honey and hives comes at a cost. Every year, a handful of black bears are shot and killed by beekeepers across the state. And while it’s perfectly legal, some think the law needs an update.

It’s a sweltering spring day near Missoula and Bert Wüstner is pulling honey combs out of a beehive. His daughter is pumping smoke into the hive to keep the bees calm, but they’re swarming around my microphone, my bare legs, and I’m really hoping I don’t get stung.

Bert Wüstner: “You’re not nervous are you?”

Nate Hegyi: “I am, I’ll be honest. I’m a little nervous.”

He give one of the combs a little shake and little droplets of nectar fall out.  

“It shakes out just like rain. That’s brand new honey,” Wüstner says.

And honey is how Wüstner makes his living. He’s a commercial beekeeper and he leases about fifty bee yards in western Montana. Almost all of them are secured with reams of barbed, solar-powered electric fence. It’s there to keep black bears out.

They love beehives. And Jamie Jonkel, a bear manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says placing a beehive on the ground in Montana is like "putting a dead horse in the back pasture and not expecting bears to feed on that dead horse."

So he encourages all beekeepers to surround their yards with electric fence, which deters bears. But it isn’t the law; instead, the law says a beekeeper can kill a black bear if it attacks their hives.

“I had to kill one last year,” Wüstner says. “It was in a big stockpile yard with over 800 hives, and I could not put a hotwire around that many bees.”

He says it’s unfortunate the bear died.

“But imagine a rancher and something’s killing all his sheep. Or his cows, I mean, it’s the same situation. Bees are actually taxed as livestock in the state of Montana, and so I’m just protecting my livestock just like any other rancher or farmer would do,” he says.

Bert Wüstner
Bert Wüstner is a commercial beekeeper in Montana.

As Wüstner said, bees are considered livestock by the state of Montana — right up there with cattle, horses and sheep. Each hive can produce a couple hundred dollars worth of honey. So when a black bear attacks a hive, a beekeeper can defend it.

But Jamie Jonkel with FWP says the law needs an update:

“I would like it if beekeepers were just flat required to have an electric fence out on every yard they have with some wiggle room for areas where there’s just no feasibility of having a fence," he says. "But in my mind, if you’re going to have $30,000 worth of bees, you know, out on the landscape, then they should be protected."

While electric fences save Wüstner money and time, he doesn’t think they should be required. Occasionally the fences fail, or a stockpile is too big to secure with a fence. In those cases, he says, the current law allowing him to kill a bear is necessary.

“If someone says you can’t kill a black bear in your bees, and you have no other choice, what are you going to do?” he says.

Beekeepers aren’t allowed to kill grizzlies, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act,  and they can only kill a black bear if it’s actually attacking their hives. And when they do kill it, they’re required to notify Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who will then remove the body.

“If we get to it in time and the hide’s still good, a lot of times we’ll take those hides and get them tanned and use them for education,” Kyle Miller, a game warden with FWP, says.

There’s no state database that says how many bears are killed by beekeepers every year.

The three bear managers I spoke with said, on average, between one and five black bears are reported killed in their regions every year. And that number is actually pretty low, considering there are literally thousands of registered bee yards in Montana.

Jonkel chalks it up to electric fencing. Both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Defenders of Wildlife have programsthat pay half the cost of building an electric fence, and Jonkel says most commercial beekeepers do a good job of securing their yards, including Bert Wüstner.

“I’m not going out there looking to kill bears, I mean, why would I do that? That’s again, a waste of my time,” Wüstner says.

There's a sticker of a wolf in crosshairs on the window of Wüstner's pickup truck. Too many wolves threaten the game his friends like to hunt and bears threaten his bees. That’s why he spends thousands of dollars on electric fences. And why he has a gun. 

As we’re sitting in the quiet of the pickup truck, Wüstner turns to me. He says he’s  concerned this story I’m doing may paint him in a bad light:

Bert Wüstner: "Because one bear is killed, ‘oh, beekeepers are killing them all the time… it’s simply not true. You know what I’m saying? This is crazy."

Nate Hegyi: "That people would be having a conversation about…"

BW: "Yeah, I mean when lions get into people’s stuff, and they’re killing their pets, they make no hesitation to call the fish and game and have somebody destroy it. I mean, it happens a lot. Way more than the bears that beekeepers kill, I’m telling you."

That was true last year and in 2012, according to Jonkel. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks say data from other years is not easily accessible. Black bears are not threatened or endangered and their population is doing well in Montana.

Over the past five years, black bears have damaged more than 600 hives across the state, costing beekeepers nearly $150,000.

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