It's a cliché that happens to be true: Bears love honey. And in Maryland, lawmakers have passed a bill making it legal to shoot a black bear if it threatens a beekeeper's hive.
In February, state Del. Mike McKay testified before the Environment and Transportation Committee on behalf of the bill. He wore a vest festooned with the image of Winnie the Pooh.
Del. Herb McMillan noted McKay's attire didn't seem to square with his arguments. "I know you came in here talking about Winnie the Pooh, but the gist of the bill is that you can shoot him," McMillan said, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Existing Maryland law requires a person to have a hunting license and a black bear hunting permit in order to hunt black bears in the state. Exempted is "a person who kills or wounds a black bear in defense of his/her own life, the lives of other individuals, or the lives of animals on the individual's property."
This week, Maryland's General Assembly passed McKay's bill. So, if the measure is signed by the governor, as of June, the exemption on hunting bears will extend to the owners of honeybee colonies, if the owner has contacted the state's Department of Natural Resources and installed an electric fence to protect the hive. The measure also provides funds to provide electric fences to beekeepers.
The DNR says it receives about six reports of damage to bee colonies annually, although those could be things other than bears. The state has a Black Bear Damage Reimbursement Fund, and it says it gets approximately two claim requests per year.
"We're concerned about the beekeepers who raise bees for honey and other agricultural uses," Del. McKay explained in a video interview with the Sun in February. "We know that black bears do attack them, and we just need to figure out a way we can protect the investment, because it is livestock. If a black bear is hurting a lamb or a calf, you have the right to shoot that because it is your investment and your livestock. We just want to extend the same to those who are in the beekeeping industry."
Four counties in western Maryland have breeding populations of black bears; the state estimates its population of black bears to be more than 1,000. One thousand bears lusting for honey.
"The proverbial bull in the china shop is no comparison to a bear in the beeyard when it comes to damage and destruction," warns the state's Department of Natural Resources.
If you've got a bear in your beeyard, the Maryland DNR recommends a four-strand electrical fence, with a small piece of bacon coated with honey or molasses affixed to it.
But Allen Hayes, president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, says that electric fences aren't always effective in deterring bears, especially if the ground is very dry. His organization backed McKay's bill.
If bears really want the hive, says Hayes, "they have been known to take the shock to the get the reward on the other side."
Eric Mussen is Emeritus Extension Apiculturist at the University of California, Davis. He says that bears have a pretty good sense of smell, and they can catch the scent of a beehive if they get downwind of a nearby colony. "If the colony is living in a tree, often the bear literally tears the tree apart to get to the bees," he writes in an email to NPR.
Once a bear gets into a colony, Mussen says, it will eat a little honey, but it will devour the bee "brood": bee eggs, larvae, and pupae — a source of protein and fat.
Bears bring that same appetite — for brood and destruction — to man-made beehives.
"They leave the covers scattered all over; the hive boxes scattered and often broken; the combs pulled out, broken, and strewn about in the apiary; and the combs that had brood in them will have the comb eaten out," writes Mussen. "The colony will not survive and there may be very little undamaged equipment to salvage."
"To a small-scale beekeeper, the financial loss is not too severe," Mussen adds. "However, losing the colony, that requires so much effort to keep healthy these days, is quite a blow. For commercial operators, who may not revisit the apiary for a couple weeks, it can mean very substantial economic loss."
The Maryland legislature has been squarely in the bee camp lately. Last year lawmakers passed the Pollinator Protection Act, which bans consumers from buying pesticides that contain neonicotinoids, which are believed to harm bees. The Associated Press reports that Maryland beekeepers lost nearly 61 percent of their hives in 2015, about twice the national average.
"A beekeeper has the right to protect his or her property in an extreme situation," Hayes said. "The state legislature obviously agrees with us."