Bear eating berries

ECOSYSTEM 101: Bears, Berries and Bees

The relationship between bears, huckleberries and bees is both straightforward and simple. Bees pollinate flowers, flowers make berries, bears eat berries. Seems simple enough.

It’s not until we consider climate change that this relationship seems more a matter of good luck than a given. In ‘normal’ years, bees are around when the flowers are blooming, which means that berries will form and ripen, providing a summer-long snack for hungry bears looking to fatten up for the fall.

But what if things shift? What if a warm winter causes bees to emerge early in the spring? Will the huckleberries be flowering early too? Or do they rely on some cue other than temperature or precipitation—sunlight hours, for example—to spur their blossoms?

For thousands of years, people (and other animals) have been observing the world around them and making note of when the natural events important to them happen. People pay attention to timing of things like bird migrations, the arrival of salmon, and the ripening of preferred berries. In the scientific literature, this is called phenology. It’s the study or observation of nature through the seasons, making note when and in what conditions different changes happen.

Given current climate trends, researcher Tabitha Graves is concerned that the seemingly straightforward relationship between bees, huckleberries and grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountains could be in trouble. Given that huckleberries make up over 15 per cent of a bear’s diets, a year with low huckleberry production can put bears at risk of going hungry and/or ending up in more human-bear conflicts.

The article “Bears, Berries and Bees” gives readers an insiders’ look at Graves research. The article is accompanied by videos of Graves speaking about her project, as well as maps and photos.


Featured image by Harvey Barrison, via Flickr

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