More Than Just Honey

September 23, 2013

Albert Einstein was rumored to have said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live." While it is a strikingly dramatic and dire statement, there is no compelling evidence that Albert Einstein ever made such a claim. In fact, if you attempt to trace the history of the quote via Google, it looks like it surfaced in the early 1990s. Despite its dubious origins and its hyperbole, the quote raises an important question, “To what extent does the quality of people’s lives depend upon pollination by bees?”

To address this question, one needs to take into account the growing demand to feed a global population of 7 billion people (estimated to be 9 billion by midcentury) in an environment that is increasingly challenged by climate change, lack of biodiversity, deforestation, overfishing, declining access to fresh water, poverty (about half of the world’s population lives below $2.50/day), etc. There is an urgent need to adapt modern agricultural practices to counteract these pressures. Fortunately, Nature provides solutions to farmers that can help feed people in developing and developed countries. Many of the ecosystem services provided by Nature, including nutrient cycling, pest regulation and pollination, directly contribute to increases in crop production.

Without honey bees, our diets would be nutritionally poor and lacking in diversity. Humans would have to rely primarily on wind-pollinated crops such as wheat, barley and corn. Large-scale access to such fruits and vegetables as raspberries, apples, strawberries, peas, beans, melons, tomatoes, blueberries, pumpkins, etc. would be non-existent. Furthermore, over the past several decades a greater fraction of the world’s food production has been shifting to developing countries. As pollinated crops have lower production levels than non-pollinated crops, there is concern that more and more land will be needed to support the demand for pollinated foodstuffs. If countries are unable to mange this agricultural development due to weak or nonexistent environmental protections, corruption, poor and/or unregulated farming practices, the resultant deforestation and habitat loss will only increase the challenges of feeding a hungry population. One clear-cut way to counteract this downward spiral is to invest in large and sustainable pollinator populations so that pollination is not a yield-limiting factor.

If we value having access to a diverse and nutritious food supply that—so much as it is possible—minimizes the negative impacts on the environment, we must place a high value on honey bees and other pollinators. By acknowledging that the responsibility for the health and wellbeing of not only ourselves and our children, but also future generations, depends upon preserving a healthy environment, we must also take steps to ensure the protection of the animals and plants with which we share the world.