Although most have never set eyes on one, villagers in Spain’s Serra do Courel, a sleepy corner of the verdant northwestern province of Galicia where the small talk is still largely conducted in Galego rather than Spanish, know that a sweet-toothed vandal is back in their midst because, for the first time in a century, someone is stealing their honey.
It could be none other than the Cantabrian brown bear.
Banished to the realm of folklore in much of Spain after years of persecution and now confined to the remote slopes of the Cantabrian mountain range, which forms the backbone of the country’s northern regions, the bears look to be on the move, albeit tentatively.
These timid creatures, smaller on average than their North American cousins at around 80-150 kilograms (176-330 pounds), are following a path well-trodden by pilgrims on the Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago, crossing into the Courel from the northwestern tip of Castile and Leon.
They find a habitat much unchanged since their predecessors were eradicated from the zone around the beginning of the 20th century: dense woodland of beech, yew and oak provides ample cover while the bruins may be tempted by a menu of chestnuts, cherries and, of course, honey.
The sweet substance, imbued with the flavor of the region’s wildflowers and heather, is a local delicacy that has been harvested here for generations and is often served up as a dessert liberally spooned over fresh cheese called requesón.
It is irresistible to the bears.
No one knows this better than the local beekeepers, who have awoken on numerous occasions to find their hives smashed open and gutted of their sticky entrails of honeycomb and larvae.
The acts of ursine vandalism are no doubt an inconvenience for apiculturists, who for the first time in over a hundred years have to think about setting up security measures for their apiaries.
But for conservationists at the Brown Bear Foundation (Fundación Oso Pardo, FOP), they are a remarkable confirmation that the bears are venturing out of their isolated subpopulations in the mountains to the northwest.
The NGO’s work since the early 1990s bucked the bear’s dwindling numbers and there are now an estimated 200 living in a western population in the Cantabrian Mountains, while another 40 make up an isolated eastern population.
In the wake of the honey raids, environmental agencies scrambled to clear the path for what is one of Spain’s rarest animals.
The European Union listed the Courel on its Natura 2000 protected regions and designated over 1 million euros in funding to the zone as part of the bloc’s LIFE program.
Their greatest challenge would be to prepare the local inhabitants for the reappearance of a creature whose existence here had slipped from living memory.
Fortunately, the relationship between man, bee and bear in the Courel goes back a long time.
In fact, the only reason the bears have now been able to access the region’s beehives is that during their hiatus from the habitat, man has literally let his guard down; untold hundreds of dilapidated slate wall rings known as alvarizas are a testament to this.
These little fortresses, which vary in circumference but whose curved outer walls on average rise 2 meters (6.5 feet) from the ground, once guarded the region’s beehives against the bears at a time when the creature roamed much of Europe’s woodlands.
They not only hark back to an era of coexistence between man and bear, but they provide a blueprint for conservationists to refer to in their bid to safeguard the local honeymakers’ produce and the EU has since bought several of these constructions for renovation.
If you go down to the woods today, you will find that most of the contemporary beekeepers have opted instead for a more modern alternative to the alvariza: the electric fence.
One such apiary of around a dozen hives sits in a clearing midway down a river gorge.
Most of the hives are housed in a renovated alvariza but a handful of nests that spill over onto the grassy embankment above require further protection from the electric fence as this particular spot has been visited by a bear on six occasions.
By and large, the contraption seems to be working, although sometimes, clever bears are known to have flouted the defense system by simply digging underneath it.
It is a time-old game of cat and mouse that environmentalists hope has a long future.
They have faith that, unlike the previous inhabitants of this land, the heirs of the Courel will learn to accommodate the bear and ensure Europe’s largest carnivore is no longer confined to fairy tales and coats of arms.
By Jake Threadgould