Bill pits bears against bees as Maryland lawmakers seek to protect hives

Members of far Western Maryland's House delegation are asking lawmakers to bees from bears.

Del. Mike McKay insists he doesn't have it in for Winnie the Pooh.

The Cumberland Republican even sported a picture of Pooh on his vest as he testified in favor of a bill that would permit people to kill or wound black bears if one of the animals threatened a bee colony.

Del. Herb McMillan found the juxtaposition odd.

"I know you came in here talking about Winnie the Pooh, but the gist of the bill is that you can shoot him," the Anne Arundel County Republican said during a House committee hearing.

The lighthearted exchange was part of a serious discussion about how far Maryland should go to defend its bees and their honey against a growing bear population.

McKay, backed by other Western Maryland lawmakers, is asking the General Assembly to extend the same level of protection to bees that it now gives calves, goats, chickens and other animals. A person defending himself, other people or livestock is exempt from a state law that makes shooting a black bear without a permit punishable by a $1,500 fine and six months in jail for a first offense.

Beekeepers deserve the same exemption, McKay told the House Environment & Transportation Committee. He said beekeepers invest hundreds of dollars in each colony.

According the state Department of Natural Resources, bee colonies are reported to have been attacked by bears an average of six times a year. Breeding populations of black bears are found in Maryland's four westernmost counties — Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick. When there's a bear sighting east of Frederick, it makes news.

For McKay, one bear raid on a bee colony is too many.

"Regardless of the number of reports, if you're the beekeeper who has made an investment in these pollinators, that investment should be protected," he said.

Maryland beekeepers said local DNR officials advised them that defending bees from bears was allowed, but high-ranking department officials later overruled the locals.

McKay's bill won support from Western Maryland beekeepers who described losing hives to the ravenous mammals.

Ben Cooper, who teaches a beekeeping class at Allegany Community College, said he's lost hives on his 31/2-acre property outside Cumberland. He said that once a black bear finds a source of honey, nothing will keep the creature away.

"The bear will continue to attack every night until the food source is gone," said Cooper, who represented the Maryland State Beekeepers Association at the hearing. He said the legislation would not lead to unsustainable losses in a state bear population estimated at 2,000 adults.

Cooper said bees have had a tough time in Maryland, losing 60 percent of their hives over the past two years. Mortality in the population prompted the legislature — led by the bee-friendly Environment & Transportation panel — to pass the nation's first law curbing use of a class of pesticides thought to be particularly lethal to the insects.

In a letter to the committee, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's Natural Resources Department took a neutral position on the bill, and didn't send a representative to testify.

Even so, the agency supplied several reasons to view the bill skeptically

The department said that, under the proposed legislation, killing a bear in defense of a bee colony could result in the Natural Resources Police spending many hours investigating whether the killing was justified.

DNR officials called an electric fence "the best and safest method" to protect hives against bears. The department said it provides free fencing to beekeepers who have had trouble with bears and will compensate up to $200 for damage done to hives by bears.

Officials also pointed out that the legislation does not differentiate between bees in colonies owned by a beekeeper and wild bees in hives on a person's property.

McKay said that could be fixed with a "tweak."

"If there's a beehive in the wild that's up in a tree, that wouldn't apply," McKay said.

Organizations that typically lobby for animal rights missed the hearing.

Jennifer Place, program associate for Born Free USA, said her group would weigh in against the bill.

"Bees are a very important species to ecosystems but so are black bears. Black bears are opportunistic scavengers and predators," she said. "We need black bears to have a healthy ecosystem.'

Place said lethal methods of controlling bears are inhumane and ineffective.

"Lethal control does not solve wildlife conflict," she said. The underlying cause of the conflict persists."

Place said electric fencing is one of several effective methods of keeping bears away from bees.

McKay said beekeepers have told him that electric fencing only works when the ground is wet. When it's dry, the animals can get through to the hives, he said.

It's time to let beekeepers defend their property, McKay said.

"Eventually, even Christopher Robin has to grow up," he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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