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.
Why Bees are Disappearing
Threats to bees 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.
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 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.
How to Help Endangered Bees
Grow a Garden to Attract and Nourish Bees
Creating bee-friendly spaces is easy, because the plants that bees like best are inexpensive and easy to grow. To attract and feed bees:
- Plant native flowers, berries, fruit trees, and herbs in a garden, in pots on a deck, or in window boxes.
- Grow many different types of plants – like people, bees are healthier when they consume a varied diet.
- Plant flowers in colours attractive to bees, such as yellow, blue, and purple. Bees don’t see the red end of the colour spectrum – red flowers look green to them, making it difficult to differentiate them from surrounding foliage. The exceptions are certain flowers such as poppies with a high ultraviolet light reflectance, as bees can see the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum
- Set aside a portion of the garden for weeds – particularly white clover, dandelion, milkweed, ironweed, and goldenrod. These are great food sources for bees. Also, because weeds will usually bloom in the fall, they provide nourishment when other food sources are disappearing.
For tips on what to plant in various Canadian locations, visit the Native Plant Database (scroll down to the “Miscellaneous” heading and choose “Bees” for a selection of bee-friendly plants and flowers). For free United States regional planting guides, visit the Pollinator Partnership website.
Provide Homes for Bees
One way to help bees is to become a beekeeper, providing homes and support for honey bees, but most people don’t have the time, energy, and suitable space for this occupation. For those not willing or able to become beekeepers, there are some quick, easy ways to create homes for bees.
Build a Mason Bee House
Mason bees, which are usually a dark, metallic blue-green colour, are great pollinators and not at all aggressive. Rather than living in hives, these solitary bees make their homes in small holes, usually in wood.
Mason bee houses can be made quite easily by taking a piece of untreated scrap lumber and using a 5/16-inch drill bit to drill holes about 5 inches deep. These holes should not go right through the block of wood.
For those who are less handy with tools, securely tying or duct taping a batch of hollow bamboo sticks (or any other dried, hollow plant stems) and using something to block off the holes on one end will also create a good mason bee home.
Hang or secure the mason bee house to the south side of a building, fence post, or tree. For an extra-safe home, surround the house with chicken wire to stop predatory birds from eating the bee larvae. Don’t spray insecticides in the vicinity of the bee house.
Build a Bumblebee House
Bumblebees are plump, round bees. They are excellent pollinators and tend to be docile and non-aggressive. It’s quite easy to provide a spring and summer home for these more sociable bees, which nest in groups.
Build or purchase a wooden box 7-8 inches square with a removable lid. Fit a plastic tube (3/4 inch in diameter) in the roof to make an entrance. For those who aren’t as handy, an upended large terra-cotta pot with a drainage hole or a big teapot buried in the dirt with just the spout sticking out will do.
For a more entertaining bumblebee house, build or purchase a nest box fitted with a glass observation window and bury it in the ground so that just the glass roof is showing. Add a little dried moss, upholstery batting, or dryer lint so that the bees can make a softer nest. Don’t use anything with long fibers such as wool, because the bumblebees’ tiny claws will snag on the fibers.
As with mason bee houses, don’t use treated wood and don’t spray insecticides anywhere near the house.
Other Ways to Help Bees
Pesticides and other toxic chemicals have been implicated in the decline of bee populations. To prevent harming bees:
- Eat organic food that is free of pesticides and encourage others to do likewise.
- Sign petitions and support laws in favour of banning toxic pesticides.
- Use natural methods of garden pest control.
For more on bees, see Honeybee Facts.
- Benjamin, A., & McCallum, B. (2008). A World Without Bees. London: Guardian Books.
- Brackney, S. (2009). Plan Bee. New York: Penguin Group.
- National Wildlife Federation. (2010). “Bee Houses.” NWF.org.
- Roach, J. (5 October 2004). “Bee Decline May Spell End of Some Fruits, Vegetables.” National Geographic News, News, NationalGeographic.com.