Many bee species are now endangered. If they disappear, most human food sources will disappear as well. Over the past 60 years, there has been a dramatic decline in bees overall, and particularly honey bees.
Many people believe that the extinction of bees would simply mean the loss of honey. Few know what a comprehensive and vital role bees play in food production, and how their loss would impact the global economy.
Without Bees, Food Would Become Scarce
Plants that depend on bees include apples, almonds, blueberries, peppers, pumpkins, avocados, cucumbers, kiwis, broccoli, alfalfa, cotton, citrus, soya beans, onions, broccoli, carrots, sunflowers, melons, cherries, and many others. Were bees to disappear, most fruits, vegetables, and flowers would disappear with them. Although some crops are pollinated by other insects, birds, bats, or the wind, bees pollinate approximately 80% of all food plants.
Wheat, rice, and corn would still grow in a world without bees, but the only fruits that would likely still be available would be pineapples and bananas. And because the crops on which cattle graze (and many of those added to their feed) would be decimated or eliminated altogether, there would be no more beef, pork, or dairy products, or these items would become extremely rare and expensive. Fish would still be available, but the seas would soon be plundered given the dearth of protein sources.
Without bees, severe food shortages would likely ensue, along with the social and political problems that inevitably accompany such shortages. In addition, because many of the most colourful foods in the human diet are also the healthiest ones, the loss of bees would spark a serious health crisis.
Other consumables that would be lost without bees would include coffee, tea, and various cooking oils (only olive and walnut would remain). In addition, many common medicines such as the decongestant ephedrine, which are derived from flowering plants, would no longer be available.
With the loss of cotton plants, which are also dependent upon bees, there would be no more cotton or denim. Beeswax, which is used in more than 120 diverse industrial applications ranging from medications and cosmetics to polishes and lubricants, would disappear as well.
The Extinction of Bees Would Devastate the Global Economy
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated the annual value of pollination services by bees and other pollinators at $200 billion.
According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the 11 crops most dependent on pollination by honey bees are worth $11.86 billion each year. Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns stated in 2007 that Colony Collapse Disorder, which threatens honey bees with extinction, could devastate the U.S. economy, costing up to $75 billion in lost jobs and output. Paying low-wage labourers to pollinate by hand the crops normally reliant on honey bees would cost approximately $90 billion each year in the U.S. alone.
Given that crops which directly rely on bees for pollination, as well as the animals that rely on those crops, are often critical to a country’s economy, the potential economic impacts would be severe. Because globalization has increased the interconnectedness of economies around the world, impacts in any country would inevitably have repercussions for the rest.
The loss of bees would also mean the loss of other valuable services they can perform. For example, scientists have been using honey bees to detect unexploded landmines, which saves money and, more importantly, human lives.
Why Bees are Disappearing
Honey bees are rapidly disappearing, and many other bee species, such as the bumblebee, are endangered as well. Threats to bees are numerous, and include mites, bacterial illnesses, and the use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
In addition, the switch to monoculture (planting a single crop on a farm or regional area rather than a variety of crops) may harm the health of bees. Like people, bees are less healthy when they eat only a single type of food.
Hives of honey bees are trucked from one location to the next to pollinate single crops such as almonds. The stress of travel, an unvaried diet, and exposure to toxic substances may suppress their immune systems, making them more vulnerable to illness. Other bee species are also negatively impacted by the loss of diversity in local food sources and the toxic chemicals used in modern agriculture.
What Can be Done to Save the Bees
- Benjamin, A., & McCallum, B. (2008). A World Without Bees. London: Guardian Books.
- Brackney, S. (2009). Plan Bee. New York: Penguin Group.