Andersen: Berries, bears and bees
August 26, 2013
Twenty-two bears were euthanized in the Roaring Fork Valley last summer because they posed a serious risk to humans. Trash was the allure for which these bears paid the full price. So far this year, no bears have died. The reason? A plenitude of wild berries and acorns. A bear can't go 20 feet this summer without finding a fastfood outlet.
Officer Dan Glidden, who is known in Aspen as "the bear whisperer" for his gentle role in dealing with problem bears, marked 1,500 bear-related calls last year. Only one call has come in this summer, and it was only a sighting.
The rich berry crop this year is a factor of climate and weather patterns aligning to perfectly suit serviceberries, chokecherries, raspberries, thimbleberries and acorns — all natural food for bears. The same factors that made wildflowers pop this summer — a cool, wet spring — made for a natural cornucopia.
The fact that bear incidents are down in Aspen diminishes the "town bear" theory. Bears, even those supposedly habituated to foraging in town, have stayed away. They prefer wild environments to the crowded summer scene in town. If not pushed to starvation, bears exercise good sense.
When climate conspires against them with early fruiting and late frosts, bears are forced into Dumpster diving. It's no help that many of their former feeding zones have been usurped by human habitation.
Nature is a fickle provider, something the Agricultural Revolution attempted to overrule 10,000 years ago. How the gift of food surpluses has morphed into McDonald's, Wendy's, Krispy Kreme and national obesity is something at which to marvel.
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Agriculture, however, has perhaps taken things too far. Consider the plight of the honeybee — featured last week on the cover of Time magazine. Honeybee populations are in a tailspin, as are wild bees, imperiling the pollination process that provides much of our produce.
The suspect in the honeybee decline (one-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared last winter) is the recently introduced pesticide neonicotinoids, a systemic toxin that poisons entire plants, including pollen, against insects. Without honeybees, monoculture food crops are at risk, which means smaller harvests for agribusiness and less, more expensive, food in the grocery stores.
If you like almonds, the demise of honeybees could be a deal-breaker because 100 percent of the California almond crop is pollinated by honeybees. These same bees pollinate 90 percent of domestic apples, asparagus and avocados, and that's just the A-list from a large catalog of foodstuff we take for granted at the grocery store.
My friend Graeme provides me with honey from the bee hives he cares for in Aspen, and I can taste wildflower meadows in my morning tea. Honeybees labor for us while our pesticides decimate them. Bees may be a tipping point for other systemic failures within the mysterious natural world of which we understand so little and which we alter so readily.
Honeybees are themselves an invasive species that came to North America in the 1600s. They found an ideal niche and pushed out native bee species to become dominant as a monoculture honey-maker and pollinator. At a cost to natural pollination biodiversity, the honeybee has become the keystone to many of our food sources — and now a tenuous one.
Assuming that honeybees help pollinate many of the plants on which bears depend for food, the decline in honeybees, while opening a niche for beleaguered native bees, may drive more bears to human trash.
Our world is made up of a series of closed life loops in which natural patterns operate smoothly until they are disturbed, often by human meddling. Suddenly, things can go wrong, and often with dire consequences. Honeybees disappear, plants fail to produce fruit, and bears are euthanized in Aspen Dumpsters.
Science claims the high ground with hubristic oversight as artificial pollinators are being innovated to fill the void left in nature as the result of other hubristic corrections to the natural balance.
To paraphrase Robert Burns in his poem "To a Mouse," the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The honeybee adds buzz to that truism.
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