If you have bears in your beekeeping area, you should take steps to protect your hives or risk losing not just your bees but much of your equipment. An electric fence, while not 100% fail-safe, is the best way to protect your apiary.
Bears are attracted to beehives as a food source. Honey is not the sole reason bears will go after a hive. Bears also eat bees, brood and larvae which are an excellent source of protein. Honey bees attempt to defend their hives from bear attacks. However, bee stings are a weak deterrent against the bear’s thick skin and fur.
In this article we’ll discuss the challenges in protecting your hives from bears, how an electric fence works and how to install one to deter bears from your beehives.
Bear Damage To Beehives
Bears are large, powerful animals with sharp claws and able to do a lot of damage.
When a bear gets access to your hive it doesn’t simply lift the lid and gently take out a frame to devour the contents. In addition to destroying your bee population, a bear can wreck your hive boxes.
When we got our first hive I kept saying I had to look into how to protect the hive. Procrastination was not a good strategy.
One morning we awoke to the scene pictured atop this article. The hive was completely apart and frames strewn all over. The bees were massed in the grass nearby. We recovered the bees and put the hive back together but there was more to come.
Knowing it would take some time to get my act together for real protection, we strapped down the hive. Not long after, the bear paid another visit. (Once finding food, bears will return regularly.)
This time, unable to get into the hive, it flipped the hive and its stand over. The hive remained intact but it seems that our queen was either killed in the incident or decided she’d had enough and skipped town.
Being newbies, it took us a while to figure it out that the colony was queen-less. We lost the entire colony, forcing us to start over the following year.
Bears Can Climb
I’m pretty sure you know that bears can climb. In case you didn’t though here’s an example.
Melanie awoke one morning to some noises around 6 AM when I was out of town. She went to another bedroom to investigate.
She pulled open the curtains and was face-to-face with a bear outside the window…ON THE SECOND FLOOR.
This agile bear had climbed on top of an arbor in front of the house, attempting to access a hummingbird feeder. Melanie got some pictures as the bear scrambled down when she shooed it away (from safely inside the house).
The point is a simple fence will not keep bears away from your hives as they can scale it…or tunnel under it…or knock it down. If you place it in the wrong location they can also climb a tree and drop down into whatever enclosure you may have set up.
Electric Fencing: The Best Way To Keep Bears Away
While it’s not a guarantee, the best protection for your hives from bear intrusion is an electric fence. You could build an elevated platform (I thought about it) but it’s not particularly cost effective or workable in my mind.
In our second year, we realized we had to get an electric fence up BEFORE our bees arrived. Calling around, I found two types of fence installers…those that put up fencing but do not electrify and those that will electrify a fence that I had already put up.
I probably could have searched more but decided this was more likely to be a do-it-yourself project. You may have a different experience.
If you’ve never done it before, the idea of setting up an electric fence can seem daunting. Fear not!
Get familiar with the workings of a fence and the parts you need. Putting it all together is not nearly as difficult as you might imagine.
How An Electric Fence Works
A properly configured fence will send a pulsing charge through the wires. As a pulse, it delivers a sudden shock. Since it’s not a steady current, you won’t get stuck to it like in some cartoon imagery. The voltage is enough to sting but not cause permanent damage.
The shock comes because your feet (or the bear’s paws) on the ground, combined with the touch of wire, completes a circuit. The electricity passing through you gives the shock. Birds birds can land on the wires and not be shocked since they aren’t grounded to complete the circuit.
I have been zapped many times working around the wires from either carelessness or stupidity. It’s a bit painful but it’s quick and not the worst thing I’ve ever felt.
Bears have good memories. A good shock is enough to keep them away.
I watched a bear walk right by our electric fence, stop and stare (longingly, I thought) at our hives, and then continue meandering on its way in search of a meal elsewhere.
Next we’ll go over the components needed to set up an electric fence. Then we’ll outline the steps to set up your fence.
What Do You Need To Set Up An Electric Fence?
The primary components of an electric fence are:
- Fence charger/energizer (plug-in or battery powered)
- Fence posts (wood, T-posts, or fiberglass/plastic posts)
- Plastic insulators to hold wires (if using wood or metal posts)
- Fencing material to carry the current such as:
- Wire (high-tensile, steel, aluminum or polywire/polyrope)
- Electric netting, or
- Wire panel
- Insulated wire (for connections)
- Ground rods and clamps
- insulated gate handles (optionally with spring-loaded gate) and gate anchors
- Voltage meter/fence tester (technically not part of the fence but needed to check the installation and subsequent performance)
- Wire crimps and or joint clamps join wires
- Cut-off switch
The tools you’ll need to install an electric fence will vary a bit, depending on the components you choose. Generally, you should have:
- Screwdrivers (most likely Phillips head) for certain connections
- Wire cutter
- Hammer if you’re nailing insulators (explained below) to posts; a drill for screws is helpful
- Mallet, sledgehammer or post driver for ground rods and metal t-posts
- Post hole digger (for wood and possibly t-posts) or an auger
We’ll discuss the various component options to help you decide your plan of attack. Then we’ll describe how to install your fence.
Modern energizers send an electric pulse through your fencing choice designed to deliver a painful “zap” but no significant damage. The goal is to train the animal (bear, horse, YOU) to stay away from the fence.
Types Of Energizers
The fence charger or energizer is the foundation for your electric fence. It will probably be the single most expensive component also.
There are three types of chargers to consider:
- Plug-in (AC-powered) chargers for locations with access to 110-volt sources (a barn, your house, etc.).
- Energizers charged by DC deep cycle or marine batteries (which need periodic recharging) where access to 110-volt is difficult or cost-prohibitive, and
- All-in-one solar chargers combine a battery with a solar panel that provides a trickle charge keeping the battery effective for up to three years.
|Energizer Type||Fence Type||Advantages||Disadvantages|
|Plug-in||Permanent||Reliable power from household current|
Comparatively less expensive
More consistent output
|Needs nearby connection to the power grid |
Needs to be sheltered from the elements
No current during a power outage
|DC Battery||Permanent or Temporary||Works in remote locations|
Charger can be exposed to the elements (though battery needs protection)
|Needs periodic recharging and backup battery |
Possible addition of solar panel at additional cost
Batteries purchased separately
|Solar All-in-one||Permanent or Temporary||All-in-one solution for remote locations||Combination of battery and solar panel relatively more expensive|
I am pretty sure your bee fencing will be substantially shorter than 2 miles. Our new fence perimeter is about 140 feet * 6 lines of aluminum wire or 840 feet total or about 0.16 miles. Energizer distances are probably not meaningful for most apiaries.
It’s about joules and voltage.
Check out our list of recommended fence chargers.
Joules & Voltage
Fence chargers store energy measured in joules, an essential factor in your selection. The output of the energizer is generally about 70% of the stored energy.
Voltage, another specification, measures the pressure that pushes the current through the wires.
See Selecting An Energizer For Your Electric Fence in Field Crop News for a detailed explanation of joules and voltage.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks publication, Bears and Electric Fencing: A starter’s guide for using electric fencing to deter bears, you need a minimum joule rating of 0.7 to deter bears.
However, the Gallagher S20 charger we used for the past 4-plus years had only 0.2 stored joule rating. We have seen bears on our property (including by the apiary), but our hives were left alone, so we assume the electric fence was an effective deterrent.
With our new electric fence, we upgraded to a Gallagher S40 with a joule rating of 0.4. (We are exploring a further upgrade to the recommended 0.7 joule minimum.)
Higher joule ratings mean higher costs.
While installing the new fence, I failed to turn off the energizer when connecting one of the wires. I can say with certainty now that the new charger delivers a bigger zap than our old one.
Voltage is the pressure that drives the current through the wires. With a bear’s thick skin and fur, you need a higher voltage to deliver a shock than for some other animals. The recommended minimum voltage for bears is 6,000 volts. (Both our old S20 and new S40 deliver around 6,500 to 7,000 volts.)
Note: The voltage can be negatively impacted by resistance on the line. Weeds and grass growing up on the wires can lower the voltage. A more powerful energizer can compensate for that and makes sense on a very long fence line. With a small bee yard, you can keep the weeds and grass down.
Bottom line, when it comes to joules and voltage, bigger is better. Unfortunately, bigger is more expensive (especially for all-in-one solar energizers). Balance that against the cost of losing all your hives to a bear.
Ground Rods And Clamps
After your energizer, the ground rod is the most critical part of your electric fence.
If your fence is not grounded correctly, it will not be effective. Galvanized (it could be copper) steel rods pounded about 6 to 8 feet into the earth complete the electrical circuit. The deeper the rod goes, the more contact it has with the earth, which improves performance.
Put the initial ground rod within 20 feet of the fence charger. Add ground rods, spaced 10 feet apart, as needed to get proper voltage through the fence. Leave several inches protruding from the earth to attach wires.
Keep ground rods at least 50 feet from any utility or telephone grounds and underground water pipes.
Moist soil is a good conductor for the ground rods. Earth grounding is less effective in some situations like dry and rocky soil or frozen, snow-covered ground. In these cases, consider alternating hot and ground wires for increased effectiveness.
The above-referenced information from Montana gives details on how alternating wires can help to ground the fence. In using alternating wires, the top and bottom wires should be hot.
Our first ground rod hit a rock and only got about three feet deep. We added a second ground rod, which helped a little, but still left our voltage too low. A third ground rod did the trick.
Connect multiple ground rods with an underground insulated wire (to avoid a tripping hazard).
Wires are attached to the rods using ground clamps screwed to the rod. Clamps should be the same metal as the rod.
Incorrect grounding is a common cause of fence failure.
If your fence is under performing during a dry spell, try soaking the ground rod with a hose.
Once you’ve determined your electric fence’s location, figure out the layout (i.e., the spacing between posts) to determine the number of fence posts you’ll need.
The ground rod in the image above is not deep enough in the ground. We had to add 2 more rods to get the proper voltage in the system.
The type of fence post you select may depend on whether your fence is permanent or temporary.
Wood posts, buried in the ground up to 3 or 4 feet, are a good choice for permanent fencing. Use treated wood for longevity.
Before you dig holes, check for underground utilities to avoid damage that could disrupt your service or, worse, cause serious injury. Call811.com is an excellent place to start.
You can use pressure-treated 4x4 posts from a home center. We opted for less expensive wood posts from Tractor Supply that better matched our garden fence’s look.
Metal T-posts work for permanent or temporary fencing. You pound metal posts using a mallet, sledgehammer, or post driver but are easier to remove than wood posts.
Fiberglass or plastic posts are generally for more temporary locations. Our original Gallagher Smart Fence, a temporary solution, used plastic step-in posts.
You can also combine different types of posts. For example, wood posts buried several feet in the ground can provide sturdy corner posts while metal T-posts span the gap between corners.
The type of wiring you select can also affect your post spacing. High-tensile wire maintains its tautness over long spans requiring fewer posts; polywire often needs a tightener to maintain tautness, so it benefits from closer spacing.
Zareba recommends 12-foot spacing for polywire and 12-20 foot spacing for a metal wire.
Note: Spring gates that expand up to 16 feet are often used in entrances. If you plan to use them, keep that distance in mind when spacing your posts.
Ordinary fencing recommendations usually include the addition of bracing for corner posts. Braces support corner posts against stress from taut fencing or animal pressure.
Bee yards we’ve seen generally have unbraced post corners as fences aren’t under heavy pressure. However, a high-tensile wire provides a strong physical barrier, in addition to the electrical charge, and may require braced corner posts.
If wires contact wood or metal posts, they will effectively be connected to the ground and short out the fence. Run wires through plastic (or more expensive ceramic) insulators to prevent this situation.
Plastic and fiberglass posts are not conductive and do not present a similar problem.
Some insulators are explicitly designed for either wood or metal posts; some work with one or the other. Get the right insulators for your post type.
Insulators can be nailed or screwed to wood posts. T-post insulators clip on to the post.
Corner wood posts may require two insulators for each wire to avoid grounding.
Types Of Wire
Fencing wire can be metal or polyethylene (“poly”) plastic intertwined with conductive metal strands.
There are several kinds of metal wire that you can use for your electric fence. Metal wires (other than high-tensile) should be 12 – 17 gauge for lines and 10 – 14 gauge for connecting to ground rods. For underground connections, use a heavier gauge, insulated wire for better connections.
High-tensile wire is made with high carbon steel. As mentioned above, it can provide a physical barrier and the psychological barrier from the shock. It requires the use of a strainer to tighten the wires properly and maintain tension. High-tensile wire is usually 12 or 12.5 gauge (the lower the gauge, the thicker the wire).
Galvanized steel wire is a long-lasting, inexpensive product and is great for a permanent fence.
Aluminum wire is also long-lasting but more expensive than steel. However, aluminum is a superior conductor to steel carrying up to four times the current. It is also lighter than steel wire and will not rust.
Polyethylene plastic, interwoven with steel strands for conducting electricity, comes in various forms for electric fencing:
- Polywire is lightweight, easy to handle and more visible than metal wires. It can be used for permanent fences but is particularly suitable for temporary ones. It may require some tensioning over time. Our Gallagher Smartfence used polywire.
- Polyrope is similar to polywire but thicker and stronger due to its interwoven stainless-steel strands. Like polywire, it has high visibility.
- Polytape is a wide strip of polyethylene interwoven with stainless steel for conducting electricity. Polytape comes in a variety of widths and colors, making it highly visible.
Here is a short video showing the differences between the various poly fencing materials.
Polylwire and polyrope require stainless steel connectors and in-line tensioners. Polytape has buckle connectors and tensioners.
Even if you opt for poly lines for the fence, use insulated metal wire for better connections from the energizer to the ground rod and the first hot fence wire.
Electric netting can be an effective short-term solution for electric fencing.
Netting may work without a ground rod by using alternating ground and hot wires. However, netting needs maintenance to maintain tension and doesn’t hold up well in some weather conditions like heavy snow.
Welded wire mesh fencing (such as cattle panels) can be attached to posts and connected to an energizer. Mesh fencing can be heavy and needs wood or metal posts and proper insulators.
With so many fencing options, how do you choose one?
For ease of use and lightweight, we suggest polywire, polyrope, or 14-gauge aluminum. On our new, permanent fence, we opted for long-lasting aluminum wire.
Electrified Line Spacing
With the energizer, we said that stronger is better. When it comes to lines, the concept is similar. More lines spaced closer together are better than fewer spaced farther apart.
With lines spaced too far apart, a bear may try to get between them. Despite getting a shock, the bear’s weight and strength might break a line rendering the fence useless.
Place the bottom line too high, and the bear may successfully dig and crawl under it. However, place the lowest line too low, and it will have more frequent contact with vegetation impeding the current.
Start with a recommended height for the top line in the range of 42 to 48 inches. Then 5 to 7 lines would cover the area using 6 – 8 inch spacing for lower lines (where the bear will make initial contact) and 8 – 10 inch spacing as you move higher.
Once you decide on your fence’s total perimeter and the number of lines, you can calculate how much wire you need to purchase.
Insulated Gate Handles And Anchors
The entire perimeter of your apiary needs to be secured against bears. But you still need a way in and out.
Insulated gate handles are connected to the wire on one end and hook on to the fence on the other. Being insulated, you can safely grab the handle and remove it when the fence is “hot.”
I prefer to turn the fence off even with the insulated handle, but sometimes I forget.
Some handles come with springs that let you draw it across a wide gate opening to close. The spring recoils to a smaller size when you open the gate.
The gate anchor is a specially designed insulator that connects the gate handle to the rest of the fence wire.
Use a voltage meter (fence tester) to check if your fence is working correctly. You could just touch the lines (and believe me, at times you will), but that won’t give an accurate reading…, and it’s not fun.
Check the lines immediately upon completion and periodically (weekly?) after that. Take a reading on each line and at different points around the fence.
If you are not getting the expected voltage of 6,000 or higher, investigate to resolve the problem.
Wire Crimps or Joint Clamps
You will connect wires at several points along your fence: from the fence charger to a line, from one line to another, from the line to a gate handle.
Wire crimps and joint clamps help make these connections, but they may not be necessary.
We used joint clamps to connect the fence charger and lines. Gate handles and termination points tie with fence wire knots.
Check out Tim Thompson’s YouTube channel for information on tying fence knots and more:
A cut-off switch lets you turn off the fence at a post. This is handy if your energizer is inside a building or not easily reachable inside the fence line.
Connect the energizer to the switch. The switch is then connected to the top line to feed power to the fence.
A cut-off switch also works as an intermediate breaking point in your lines.
Lower lines buried in snow can drain the charge making the fence less effective. Use a cut-off switch to disconnect only those lines if needed.
How Much Does An Electric Fence Cost
We estimate the cost of an electric fence to protect your beehives ranges from about $200 to $600 (excluding labor). This range depends primarily on the size of your fence and choice of energizer.
The cost of a solar energizer has the largest individual impact on this range. As a backyard beekeeper, we expect that other variable costs based on the size of your apiary will have a modest impact by comparison.
If you plan to hire someone for installation, assume a day’s work to complete the task which may add about $200 – $300 to the cost.
Check our resource page Electric Fence Cost Estimator to estimate the cost based on your specifications.
Now that we’ve covered the components and cost estimates, let’s set up your electric fence.
How To Install An Electric Fence For Your Apiary
Some of your steps vary slightly depending on the components you choose, but the general procedure will remain much the same.
1. Plan your fence.
There are some considerations I’d suggest you keep in mind when planning your electric fence.
If you already have an apiary, you’ve taken into account many issues regarding location. However, additional things need to considered for an electric fence installation.
See our article Where To Place A Beehive about apiary locations (excluding electric fence issues).
Think again about proximity to children and pets who can get zapped. Our dog got hit once when we failed to pay attention to where she was. She stays far away from the bee yard now. I don’t think you want your kids getting a similar lesson.
You’re going to need a charger to properly power the fence. Proximity to electric power will affect what type of fence charger you can use. If you are not close to a power source, a solar charged battery unit is your best option.
Determine if there are local regulations limiting your ability to set up an electric fence.
An electric fence needs ground rods to complete the electrical circuit and deliver a shock. Zareba Systems, a manufacturer of electric fence systems, recommends that you do not “install ground rods within 50 feet of a utility ground rod, buried telephone line or buried metal water line, as they may pick up stray voltage.”
Also, some fences posts will require you to dig holes up to several feet deep. It’s important to check for buried gas and utility lines before you dig to avoid service disruptions and potential serious injuries. Call811 can help with this.
This is a tough one for a newbie. Starting out you probably have one or two hives and your electrified fence can be rather small at first. You’re probably not sure how big a commitment you’re going to make to this hobby. You can always expand or shrink a yard but that’s more work down the road.
The larger the fence, the higher the initial cost in dollars and time. Decide on a plan that fits your current arrangement and future plans as best you can within your budget constraints.
Beehives should be at least 3 feet from the fence line so bears don’t just reach in, possibly knocking over the fence before being run off by a shock. Make your beeyard large enough to accommodate that spacing.
Temporary Or Permanent Fencing?
It’s possible to set up electric fence that is relatively temporary and can be easily expanded. If you want a more permanent fence, give your apiary some room to grow in line with your plans for the next few years as it’s more difficult to change.
We originally opted for a “temporary” solution using this all-in-one fence and a solar charger. This “temporary” fence did the job for about four years. We recently replaced it with an expanded permanent fence.
Even putting up this simple system was quite the experience as you can see in the accompanying video. We’ve learned a lot since we installed this initial fence and it’s all detailed below.
- Determine the location, size and post spacing
- Take into account your neighbor and any state or local regulations
- Layout the fence line with string and mark the locations for posts
- Calculate and purchase materials needed (energizer, fence posts, insulators, wire, energizer, ground rods, etc.)
- Gather tools you may need (screwdrivers, drill, hammer, fence pounder, wire cutter, post hole digger or auger, etc.)
- Prepare the area by removing any obstacles and mowing down vegetation.
2. Set up your energizer/fence charger.
- If using a plug-in energizer, place it in a location sheltered from the elements and close to an AC connection.
- If using a remote DC or solar fence charger, mount it on a post inside the fence perimeter.
- Solar charges should face south (in the northern hemisphere) for maximum sun exposure. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for charging the unit in advance and connecting the battery.
- DC batteries should be close to the charger and protected from the elements.
- Do not turn on the charger until you connect it to the fence in a later step. Not a huge deal but you may get shocked along the way if it’s on.
3. Pound in your ground rods and connect them.
- Leave 2 – 4 inches exposed above ground for clamping wires.
- Attach an insulated wire to the exposed ground rod furthest from the energizer using a ground clamp. Connect the wire to the next ground rod with another clamp.
- Repeat until all ground rods connect.
- Connect the final rod to the ground on the energizer. (Note: ground posts on energizers are typically indicated in green and hot fence lines
- Run the rod to rod connections slightly below ground to avoid a tripping hazard.
4. Place your posts.
- Important and we’ll repeat it: Before you dig holes for posts, check for underground utilities to avoid damage that could disrupt your service or, worse, cause serious injury. Call811.com is an excellent place to start.
- Drive metal T-posts into the earth with a mallet, sledgehammer, or post driver, or
- Dig post holes for wood posts.
- Using a level, check posts for plumb.
5. Mark a strip of wood to show the spacing between your wires.
- Use this as a template to mark your posts where wire insulators/wires go.
6. Attach insulators to posts
- Include gate anchors on both sides of the gate opening.
7. Run wire for each line.
- Begin and end with your gate anchors.
- Pull the wire taut. Use a tensioner or a ratchet if necessary.
We tied off the termination point at each gate anchor with a fence knot. (Our fence knots did not come out as neat as Tim Thompson’s but they got the job done.)
8. Connect gate handles to anchors.
- The connecting wire or spring should be long enough for the handle to reach and hook to an anchor on the opposite side.
9. Connect the energizer.
- With all the gates connected for a complete circuit, connect the energizer’s fence terminal (hot side) to the top fence line with insulated wire.
- If you’re using a cut-off switch, connect the energizer to the switch; then join the switch to the top fence line.
- At this point, turn on the energizer and use the voltmeter to check the one connected fence wire. If you don’t get the reading of 6,000 or higher, check all your connections.
- If you decide to check the wire at this stage, be sure to turn the charger off before connecting the remaining lines. (Or get a nice shock like I recently did!)
10. Connect all the fence lines together.
We used joint clamps for connecting wires to the energizer and to each other. They are easy to attach and remove if you want to make changes.
As an alternative to joint clamps, you can use wire crimps or simply knot the wires together.
11. Turn on the fence charger.
12. Check each line with the voltmeter.
- Test the lines in several different locations, especially the point furthest from the charger. You may see some variation in voltage (a couple of hundred volts), but this is normal. Follow the instructions for grounding your meter and testing a hot line.
- You should get at least 6,000 volts reading.
Trouble shoot any voltage issues
If you’re not getting the recommended 6,000 volts in your wires:
- Make sure your energizer is ON.
- If so, remove the wires and test the energizer using the fence tester on the positive (hot/red) and negative (ground/green) to make sure it’s delivering the appropriate voltage.
- Batteries should be properly charged and, of course, AC chargers must be plugged into a working outlet.
- You may need to contact the manufacturer if the charger isn’t working properly.
- Check that all connections are tight and secure (especially to the ground rod).
- See if any wires are not properly protected from fence posts by insulators.
- Determine if anything else is grounding the system like vegetation touching the lower lines.
- If you spot no other problems, then your grounding system is the likely problem. If you’ve used only one ground rod, consider adding up to 2 additional rods or alternating hot and ground fence wires to correct the problem
13. Keep your bottom lines clear of vegetation going forward and check the lines regularly.
14. You may want to “bait” the electric fence to assure your local bear learns to stay away.
- To bait a fence, put a strip of bacon or some aluminum foil coated with peanut butter on the line close to where the bear’s nose and mouth would be.
- The bear’s sense of smell will lead it right to the bait. The resulting shock will teach the bear to steer clear of your apiary.
Electric Fence Video
You can find information about electric fencing included in this article on our YouTube channel.
If bears are a potential threat to your bees, installing an electric fence is the best solution.
We waited too long to install one and lost our hive. Try to avoid making that same mistake.