I live in the center of Pennsylvania, where the terrain ranges from beautiful river bottom farms to remote mountain forests and every kind of in-between habitat and you can see a bear in any of them. Bears are very adaptable and learn quickly where to find a meal. A small number of people encourage these bears to come into close human contact by feeding them treats. Some get so used to people that they eat right off of their porches. Then they become problems for everyone, dumping garbage cans nightly, eating from the garden, tearing chicken coops apart, and emptying the well filled bird feeder for dessert. Part of their diet comes from insects in the ground and old hollow logs, but these are found in small amounts and require a lot of work to make a good full stomach.
Sometimes in their travels, which are many and often, a bear comes across an all-night, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord containing a complete diet of protein and carbohydrates. Where is this wonderful restaurant? Why, it's your beeyard, with several buffet tables on which that hungry bear will sample three or four, of course, one will be your prize hive that was doing so well. He may even knock a few others over just as a way of make reservations for tomorrow.
The next time our friendly, easy-going, not-much-bothers-him beekeeper visits his yard you see him change into a raging bear killer --"I'll kill everyone of them." A lot of us have experienced this change. I have.
It is not the bear's fault that over millions of years he survived by eating all types of foods and now someone keeps bees in boxes on the ground. The black bear is beautiful, agile, very powerful and a very good athlete. Everyone should have the opportunity to observe one in their wild domain as he moves about at his own leisure. To see one when it is in prime condition is something you don't forget quickly. The sunlight reflects off of the hair like millions of tiny diamonds as it moves about and then it steps into the edge of the clearing and gone like a ghost. It is a wonderful thrill that I've seen several times. If only they didn't like my bees.
Well folks, the bears are here to stay and if you live in a state that has them you will have a problem. I have had bear problems over the years but I never suffered a loss when I had a properly maintained fence and some of these were pretty ratty.
Bears are unpredictable. Years will go by without a loss and then your yard is on the menu. They may come back again and again or it may be the hit and run type that never comes back again. I've had both kinds over the years. In the 50s I lived 40 miles west of New York City and bears were something you heard about in stories from Pennsylvania. The man that lives in our old house told me last Fall that he has seen bears up on his back porch that s a hundred feet from where my hives used to set. They shot one last year in Paterson, NJ, about 15 miles west of NYC. They are everywhere so learn to accept and live with them.
So how do you live with them? Fence your bees in and the bears out. I inspect bees for the state so I see all types of protection, but why someone would set 10 to 15 hives out without any protection is beyond me, especially after he has just finished telling me how a bear ripped them up last year. It is like playing Russian Roulette only with five live rounds instead of one. You can build a minimum type fence for the cost of one colony with honey on it or a top of the line fence for twice that. Over the years I have built several different styles and they all did the job, but some are better than others. For several years I only used thin smooth wire like the T.V. and phone companies use to lash up their cable to the supporting steel strand (cable). It didn't rust, was easy to work with and didn't require much of a corner post or many in line posts.
About every month or two, pieces of bacon should be tied to the wire as bait. The bear will touch this and learn what the fence is. The bear must be trained the same as cows, goats, sheep and horses are, so they know what the fence is. Because an electric fence operates in cycles an animal can be part way through before he is shocked ZAP now he is through and doesn't know what hit him. He must be shocked before his head is between the wires or you have a high risk of failure. Bacon strips are a good idea for any kind of electric fence.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a program for supplying materials to erect deterrent fences for bears if 10 or more hives are in one location on land open to public hunting. They also may pay for damage caused by bear if the bear is not killed, if the affected hives are within 300 yards of the owner's or an agent in charge of the hives domicile, if it is a first time claim, or if a commission approved, bear deterrent fence has been erected, maintained, and operated. Add a tight budget to these rules and good luck.
The PA Game Commission recommends three strands of 15 1/2 to 12 gauge four-point barbed wire spaced 10", 20", and 30" above ground and will supply an information sheet on erecting a bear fence. I went this route a number of years ago but I wasn't satisfied with the equipment and requirements. I buy what I want now. I know it costs me more money, but one night of a bear visit will be more expensive than a good fence and I will still have to buy the fence.
Kencove (one of the largest fencing suppliers in the U.S. with some very knowledgeable people; 344 Kendall Road, Blairsville, PA 15717, 724.459.8991) does not recommend electrifying barbed wire. In their words "it is too dangerous." I agree. I have seen animals become tangled up in a barbed wire electric fence. It just keeps on shocking the animal every second or so because it can't get away. If a person was to get snagged on a barb with his clothing it could possibly end up the same way. Remember, it is the power of the shock, not the size of the wire that will turn a bear.
A few years ago I started using large trailers to keep my bees on about 24 hives per trailer. I knew I would have to have bear protection so instead of building a fence around the trailer I made up hangers to hold livestock panels along the sides. These look like woven fence but are 1/4" thick bar stock welded together in 16' lengths and then galvanized. Tractor Supply sells panels that are welded after galvanizing and they hold up fair. The really good ones are welded, then hot dipped in zinc and are manufactured by Behlen Corp. in Columbus, NE, 800.447.2751. They can supply a list of dealers in your area if you call them. The local dealers in my area handle 52" high cattle panels and 34" hog panels. I have always used the 52" just as a safety factor but I really think 34" would work.
A friend of mine from the Poconos, John Sloan and I were discussing bear problems last Spring in his yard when we came up with the idea of using these same panels to build a permanent beeyard fence. Again Kencove came to the rescue of how to insulate these from the ground, and what to use for fence posts. They sell fiber glass used oil field sucker rods 1 1/4" in diameter and whatever length you want. They feel like a piece of steel and are about that flexible. NOTE: Always wear gloves when you handle these because of the glass fibers. Do not let the hardware store salesman talk you into something else that will not work as well. I have mine cut out six feet long and drive them two feet into the ground and leave the panel extend above the top. After driving in the posts I stand a panel up on two four-inch bricks and tie it to the post. This four-inch space allows me to use a weed eater for vegetation control while it is low enough to keep skunks out. Skunks are a real problem with the research hives at Penn State University that I help maintain. Once the panels are at the correct height use a drill to make a 1/4" hole through the post about 12" down from the panel top at a horizontal bar location. Insert a 1/4" stainless bolt with the head on the far side using one washer next and then a nut and tighten. Now screw on the second nut and washer with Loc Tite leaving 3/8" between the two nuts. Now the panel's weight will be supported by the bolt and you can tie the panels to the post with thin wire or plastic ties. Eight posts and four panels with about two hours work and I have a 16' x 16' nice looking beeyard. Bear will sniff and touch but stay out.
We also used 36" wide metal roofing under the panels at Penn State to reduce fence vegetation maintenance and this also gives the bear's feet a wonderful ground to complete the circuit. One end of a panel is simply swung back to provide us with a gate when we are working and then tied shut when we leave.
Another type of fence was used the previous Fall at another yard location for Penn State. When I was first asked to do the field work with the University's bees I asked "how are your bear fences." The answer was: "They don't work but it's alright because we don't have a bear problem." I made temporary repairs to the fence and braced the corners so it was half presentable. The fencer itself was a cheap solar unit but appeared to work. I installed 25 packages in that yard and one week later it was raided by a bear. I couldn't find any downed wire so the only thing it could have done was to crawl under the smooth gate wire. The fencer was working and I was stumped. I did my bee work and before I left for home decided to check the fencer again. It was a "sometime fencer"- sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. So I drove the 80 miles round trip and brought back my own Solar Parmak Fencer and hooked it up.
About a week later on a Sunday evening while the sun was still up I drove over to check and while doing paper work in the truck cab I noticed something coming down the logging road. It was a beautiful black bear coming right toward me past the front of the truck within 12 feet of me and then went to each side of the yard. It would stand about the middle of one side and look left and right, after a while it would move to another side and look left and right again. Finally it went back into the brush and laid down. They say a cow can tell if a fence is on or off and I think a bear can also. As poor as this fence was the good fencer kept the bear out.
I rebuilt this fence in the Fall with 6" and 8" x 8' long wood fence post and high tensile wire spaced about six inches apart. I used 1 1/2" pipe between the post to brace one corner against another. One wire was placed about four inches from the ground to keep the skunks out and it made a big difference this year no skunks. This is a very impressive looking fence but it requires a tremendous amount of labor and I really don't think it is as effective a fence as the panels for bear protection. Live and learn.
Let's talk about the fencer last. It is the heart of the whole fence, for without it you have nothing. The best chain link fence without electric is just an exercise game for a bear, they just go up and over the top, hand over hand. Here I go back to Kencove for more answers.
If you want to get some real technical questions answered then ask for Ken. He recommends a fencer with an output of one joule for bears. Both Penn State and I have been using the Parmak Magnum 12 volt solar unit with no break-ins from bears. Some fencers are rated with miles of wire they can handle and sometimes it can be very misleading. Those sales people will say anything sometimes to make a sale so it is better to deal with someone you trust and that knows the equipment. The output on the Parmak 12 is at .5 - one joule whether it is solar powered or a battery powered fencer.
Kencove can build a custom made unit also if you have deep pockets and a real need for more power. Some of the things that determine how large a solar unit you need are: 1) latitude which determines the tilt angle, 2) the average sun hours per day, and 3) the output of the fencer. Generally the larger the fencer unit (output) the larger the solar panel must be. Also, larger batteries are needed where you have fewer sun-hours per day.
I have a small D-cell operated unit with 0.25 joule output. I use it where I have only one or two hives on a temporary basis and so far I haven't had any problems but I would not recommend it as a good choice.
People tell me they can't afford to spend $300 on a bear fence and then turn around and lose four or five hives with the season's honey production gone also. They lost all that and then they buy a fence. The 110 volt fencers are nice because they always work (when they work) but lightning is about three times as likely to hit the fencer than with a battery or solar powered fencer. Just in case you didn't know, those solar units do contain a battery that needs replaced every few years. I didn't know this and years ago I bought a brand new solar unit from a farm store. It had been on the shelf so long the battery was junk. I sent it in to the manufacturers and they repaired it but I was out the postage and time. Again buy from someone that has a good reputation.
The cost of a 16' x 16' beeyard at Penn State was: four panels @ $25 = $100; eight posts @ $6.90 = $55.20; total = $155.20 plus fencer.Another person I met used wood post with Kencoves double nail on insulators to hold the panels. It turned out as a real neat looking job when he was done. One of the larger queen breeders told me he likes the 0.5" white ribbon for temporary fence. It seems that the bears are fascinated by the way it flutters in a breeze and touch it with their nose. Won't do that again.
All in all bears are one of our smaller problems. They can be managed with a little work and common sense. Of course somewhere or sometime you may have a problem and have to solve it the best way for everyone. It won't do any good to fight with the game commission of your state because they are only able to do so much and now their budgets are tight. If you want more information on this, you may contact me, Craig Cella, 570.725.3682