It's a dreaded sight for Traverse City beekeeper Larry Hilbert: Wood boxes containing beehives broken and scattered, the honeycomb stripped away, the bees dead or gone.
The culprit, as cliché as it may be, are honey-loving black bears. And the problem's getting worse, said Hilbert, the owner of Hilbert's Honey Bees.
"I'm a fourth-generation beekeeper; my sons are five," he said. "I have more (bear) problems in a month than my dad had in a 40-year career."
Black bear populations are on the rise, particularly in the northern Lower Peninsula. The number of black bears 1 year old and older in that region has soared 29% since 2012 — up 47% since 2000 — to 2,112 bears, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Upper Peninsula adult black bear populations are up 11% in that time frame, to 9,699 bears.
Nowhere is the bear boom stronger than the 10-county area of western Michigan from the Leelanau Peninsula south to Muskegon County, designated by the DNR as the Baldwin Bear Management Unit, one of nine units in the U.P. and the northern Lower Peninsula.
The population growth is no accident. It's a result of carefully restricted hunting and a desire by the DNR and hunters to bolster the bear numbers, in no small part to make for successful, enjoyable hunts for bear hunters that might have to wait 10 to 12 years to land a license in the Baldwin unit, through the state's points-based, quasi-lottery draw. Some 2,845 hunters applied to hunt bear in the Baldwin unit last season. Just 80 got licenses.
There's still plenty of habitat for more bears, said Tim Dusterwinkle, president of the Michigan Bear Hunters Association.
"We'd like to see more bears on the landscape," he said. "We value the bear as the premier game animal in the state."
But more bear has meant more nuisance problems: More trash receptacles trashed; more bird feeders becoming bear snacks.
The Michigan State Police's Office of Highway Safety Planning only began tracking car-bear accidents last year, and reported 61 statewide, from Gogebic County in the far western U.P. to one in Wayne County.
A bear can wreak havoc in a cornfield, munching through crops. And then there's the beekeepers, who raise and sell honey commercially and who provide pollination services for cherry and other fruit orchards. Bees are already a troubled species, and the bears don't help.
And the more bears and humans get close to each other, the more potential danger arises.
On Aug. 15, 2013, Abigail Wetherell, 12, was attacked by a bear while out running on her grandfather's property in Wexford County's Haring Township, north of Cadillac. She was hospitalized with deep cuts to her thigh, puncture wounds and bruises, but recovered.
Almost three years later, on April 30, 2016, a 9-year-old female black bear was shot and killed by a man in the same township after it attacked his dog and threatened him. It was confirmed through genetic testing by the DNR as the same bear that attacked Abigail.
"Nuisance and crop damage complaints across the (northern Lower Peninsula) region have risen dramatically in recent years," DNR staff said in a February report to the Natural Resources Commission, supporting an expanded hunt.
"Notable complaints such as bluff charges, attacks on humans, and domestic dog kills have become more common and have created a higher level of concern among the public and Department staff."
Black bears booming (Photo: Martha Thierry, Detroit Free Press)
Back to honey
People have a misconception that bears are only after honey, Hilbert said.
"The bear basically knocks the hive over and systematically destroys everything. There is no rebuilding the hive," he said. "You not only lose the hive; you lose honey production for that year, too.
"He'll eat the bees, the brood, the larvae. He eats everything but the wood."
"The fall, when they get hungry, is when they really do us in," he said. "They're getting thicker. It gets worse every year."
It's a problem that's been coming on for 15 years, Hilbert said.
"We've been complaining on deaf ears," he said. "It feels like a bureaucracy out of control. They didn't care about out problem; all they care about is more bears."
DNR taking action
However well it listened in the past, the DNR is listening now.
After lowering the number of bear tags available in recent years to boost the bear numbers, the state Natural Resources Commission in March, at the suggestion of DNR biologists, expanded the bear hunt for this fall, nearly doubling the number of licenses available in the Baldwin Bear Management Unit to 155.
The DNR intends the modified tag numbers to result in harvest of 1,170 bears in the Upper Peninsula, up 52 bears from last year; and 355 bears in the northern Lower Peninsula, 112 more than in 2016.
"I think we've been a bit too conservative with our harvest in the Northern Lower Peninsula in the past," DNR wolf and bear specialist Kevin Swanson said.
"Much of that is because of our hunters. The houndsmen, some of the bait hunters, they want more bears on the land. They always push us to have fewer tags. There's a lot of people unhappy with us this year because we increased the tags."
The DNR bases its bear management decisions primarily on science, Swanson said. But "there's a social tolerance, as well as the biological capacity, that needs to be considered," he said.
"We've probably exceeded the social tolerance of bears in the Baldwin Bear Management Unit right now."
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs didn't take a position on the bear quota increases, and recognizes its members "have their own individual perspectives on respective bear management units," spokesman Nick Green said.
"The process that went into the department's decision to increase quotas was a process that we support for management of all species — sound science, concrete biology and a thorough look at the cause and effect of increasing or decreasing licence quotas should always govern license numbers," he said.
Cost of doing business
Bears have likely existed in Michigan since the conclusion of the last Ice Age, nearly 12,000 years ago. Black bears enjoyed centuries of coexistence with Native Americans, but after European settlers arrived, the bear was hunted indiscriminately.
"They were treated as a vermin animal back then," Dusterwinkle said.
It wasn't until 1925 that limitations were placed on bear hunting. The Michigan Bear Hunters Association, founded in 1946, helped further refine the hunting season, and advocated for added protections on bear sows and cubs.
"We are primarily a conservation organization concerned with wise use of the game in our state," Dusterwinkle said.
Problems with nuisance bears are "mostly an education issue," he said.
"People need to be aware of garbage cans and bird feeders. They have to be put away. Otherwise, the bear becomes habituated to it, and becomes a nuisance."
As for beekeepers, Dusterwinkle said the DNR has worked with them in recent years on "a cheap system" of electric fences that keep "the vast, vast majority" of bears out of their beehives.
"It's just a cost of doing business, and it's not expensive to do, either," he said.
Dekorne, who operates his bee operations in Mesick, said electric fences have helped him. But Hilbert said they aren't the answer for every operator and situation.
"I've got over $100,000 in bear fencing material," he said. "It doesn't always work. And it has to be managed. The problem is, I have over 150 locations. The chance of me catching a bear in the bee yard is slim to none. I can't be everywhere at once. And there are places now where there are bears where there never used to be bears."
Even with the expanded hunt this fall, Hilbert said, the DNR hasn't "gone anywhere near as far as they could." He called for beekeepers to have the right to live trap nuisance bears, and to be able to "shoot a bear in a bee yard 24/7, with a light."
Absent those measures, some beekeepers still take care of the problem themselves, he said.
"The motto is, 'Shoot, shovel and shut up,'" he said. "Their laws turn honest, hardworking taxpayers into criminals.
"Don't I have a constitutional right to protect my property?"
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.