By Caroleine James
Wrangell Sentinel 

Bears make a beeline to the hives for the sweet protein


August 2, 2023 | View PDF

It’s more than just a sweet tooth that directs bears to honey.

Beekeeper Christi Henthorn of North Carolina explained the relationship between bears and beehives — and how to protect your pollinators from a possibly disastrous bear attack — in a presentation at BearFest on July 29.

The Winnie the Pooh story popularized the idea that bears raid beehives to steal their honey, but this is only partially true. “Bears really want to eat, not just the honey, but the honeycomb and the bees themselves as well,” explained Henthorn.

Bee pollen is one of the most complete sources of protein available in nature and beeswax provides bears with healthy fats. The hive’s brood — or baby bees — is also a source of protein and nutrients for bears.

“The bears are actually primarily wanting to eat the brood,” she said. “Like, ‘great, there’s honey,’ but they’re really going after that protein and those baby bees.”

She shared pictures of demolished hives that had been ripped apart by bears, with their beeswax frames strewn over 100 feet away into the forest. “This doesn’t look that deadly,” she said, “but it was 45 degrees and raining. That equals death for a honey bee. If it was just raining and it was a nice day like today, they’d be fine. If it was just cold, they’d be fine. But when you add the cold and the water, generally (they do) not fare so well.” Of the three hives that were damaged that day, she was only able to get one back up and running.

Southeast Alaska is a uniquely difficult place for beekeeping, Henthorn explained. The cold, wet climate and the prevalence of bears would make it difficult for a Wrangell beekeeper to produce enough honey to sustain a small business, but they’d have plenty for at-home use and small gifts for family and friends.

“I don’t know if having a successful honey operation here is reasonable. I think it might just be too wet,” she said. “But if you want to make maybe a little bit of money, if you want to do pollination, if you want to increase the yield in your gardens, (if) you just like science,” starting a beehive would be a great choice.

Henthorn acknowledged that being a beginning beekeeper can be overwhelming. She recommends joining with other community beekeepers to swap tips, offer mutual support and help each other keep the hives alive.

“If you do it as a group, you can kind of borrow from each other and you have that support … not everybody has to drop a bunch of money to get their bees to begin with,” she said.

“If you can get two or three people to get six hives, next year, you take those six hives and you make them into twelve hives. And instead of spending hundreds of dollars on bees from somewhere else, the bees that survived the winter have better genetics for this environment. And so now you have better bees that have a better chance of surviving.”

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, Henthorn will hold a “Bees and Beers” event at the Marine Bar at 6 p.m. for aspiring beekeepers to get personalized advice on how to start a hive in Wrangell.


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