The most oft-quoted statement about the value of bees is rumoured to have come from a Belgian playwright. Maurice Maeterlinck’s estimation, often attributed to Einstein, that the extinction of bees would result in humanity having only four years left directly traces back to the role of bees as pollinators whose immediate impact is felt by every organism on the planet.
In 2006, entomologists and beekeepers first identified colony collapse disorder as 20-30% of bee colonies across the United States collapsed. 2007 saw colony collapses across 22 states and much of continental Europe. In 2011, such heavy losses were incurred that California’s honey production fell by 50%. The latest USDA survey showed that over a third of honeybees died last winter – an increase of 42% from the previous year. Distribution maps of bee populations show contractions of range and wholesale extinctions across entire regions.
The causes of these eradications are wide-ranging and difficult to pin down. Increased land use going towards farming reduces the number of flowering plants when cash-crops are not in bloom. Climate change, mite infestations, pesticide use, bacterial disease, fungal infections and parasites have all been identified as menaces to bee populations. The introduction of fungicides and herbicides, designed to save colonies from collapse, often have the opposite effect. The combination of chemicals has been shown to compound effects: in Germany, the introduction of a pesticide compound was seen to turn an innocuous virus into a killer. Bees seemingly find themselves at the mercy anthropogenic externalities – typically an indicator of a lack of perceived value.
How valuable are bees within our food supply? The scope of what is at stake is often overstated. 2/3 of the food consumed by humans, including most staple crops, is pollinated not by insects, but by wind. The remaining 1/3 is mostly pollinated by wild bees, of whom only 2% of species pollinate approximately 80% of crops. The 1/3 of crops pollinated by insects include fruit and vegetable species, nuts, herbs and spices, coffee and chocolate – none of which are staple crops, but many of whom are viewed as essential in a varied and nutritious diet. And many intensive cash-crops farmed, including almonds, apples and coffee, are entirely dependent upon honeybees. Without them, these will become much rarer and more expensive commodities.
No individual factor is going to doom the bees. But bee populations under pressures from habitat loss of food shortage will be less resilient to a changing environment. Returning land to wild conditions is part of a solution, as is restricting the free movement to prevent the spread of pesticides to different colonies. But without fully understanding the exact cause that is decimating populations, no solution can be prescribed with any confidence in its effectiveness.
A Belgian playwright was mistaken in dooming humanity if our striped friends perish. But life will lose a fair bit of color, of variety, of flavour if the bees die out. And a world without coffee or chocolate – depending who you ask, that may be worse than a planet-wide extinction event.
Porrini et al. The death of honey bees and environmental pollution by pesticides: the honey bees as biological indicators. 2003. Bulletin of Insectology.