It’s not just about honey shortages, of course.
Spend enough time sifting through the detritus of fake quotes that is The Internet and you’ll probably see this:
If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.
The line is usually attributed to Einstein, and it seems plausible enough. After all, Einstein knew a lot about science and nature, and bees help us produce food. But, like much of the fearmongering out there, it’s worth doing some basic debunking before you share this nugget of doom.
First, the easy part: “I’ve never seen anything definitively link the quote to Einstein,” says Mark Dykes, the chief inspector for Texas Apiary Inspection Service. Quote checkers like this one, and this one agree. But debunking its message? That’s more complicated.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of pollinators in our ecosystem. In case you missed this day in high school biology, when a male flower loves a female flower, it invites a pollinator to round out its threesome. The bee transfers pollen from the male flower to the lady bits of female flowers. A few days later, a baby watermelon or apple emerges.
While bees are not the only pollinators we have (bats, birds, butterflies, and some flies can do this work, too), they’re by far the best creatures for the job. In part, this is because they need pollen to feed their larvae, so they’re biologically driven to gather the stuff. Other pollinators visit flowers only to suck nectar, and any pollen that sticks to them in the process is a happy accident.
“Additionally, most [bee] species are fuzzy, and those hairs attract pollen grains, making the bees even more likely to pollinate,” says Jessica Beckham, a post-doctoral researcher studying bumblebees at the University of North Texas. Bees also provide food for some bird species, so if a cataclysmic event sent all our bees into rapture, the aftershocks would ripple up the food chain.
Unfortunately, that rapture may be coming. While incidences of colony collapse disorder—or entire hives being wiped out overnight—have slowed in the past few years, “just because we don’t see as high occurrence of CCD does not mean that honey bees are doing great,” says Elina L. Niño, who runs a bee research lab at UC Davis, in California. “There are many other factors that honeybees and beekeepers have to deal with and we are still losing thousands of colonies per year,” Niño adds. The current scourges of honeybees include a parasitic mite called the varrao mite and the new presidential administration.
In 2013, the Obama administration implemented a Pollinator Protection Research Plan, which tasked all government agencies with reviewing ways to protect birds, bats, butterflies, and bees. It used this intel to implement the Pollinator Protection Plan in 2016. Though the plan, which calls for increasing habitat and decreasing pesticide use is still new, it’s been heralded as an important first step towards helping vulnerable pollinator populations. But both Niño and Beckham are concerned that Trump’s promise to shrink—or even eliminate—the EPA, and to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, may make the 2016 victory of the Pollinator Protection Plan short-lived.
“Pollinators could be very negatively affected by depressed regulations to keep our waters and other natural areas free from pollution,” Niño says, adding that the work the EPA does to test and regulate pesticides is vital to keeping bees alive and productive. Beckham adds, “My opinion is that the current administration and GOP do not have the best interests of the environment or pollinators in mind, and they are proposing policy that will negatively impact both.”
But back to the original question: Are honeybees—and we by extension—doomed? Dykes says it’s not just the attribution of that Einstein quote that is problematic, it’s the message too. Chances are humans would survive long after bees perished.
Let’s go back to plant sex: Like human sex, there’s more than one way for plants to get it on. “The majority of our food sources are wind-pollinated,” says Dykes, meaning the breeze does the work of the birds and the bees. Corn and wheat, two staples of the typical Western diet, are both wind-pollinated, and would be unaffected by a massive pollinator catastrophe.
However, while from a calorie perspective our food system would be secure, from a diversity standpoint, things would be bleak. Much of our produce, like almonds, peaches, plums, apples and cherries, rely on bee-assisted pollination. In fact, “One analysis of the global crop market found that pollinators are essential or highly, moderately, or slightly necessary for 91 crops consumed by humans,” Niño says. “We would definitely lose many of the foods that make our diets vibrant, healthy, and nutritious.”
The scenario above, of course, presumes that we don’t replace our lost pollinators with any alternative options. Plants can be pollinated by hand (or, in the future, by drone). Last year, images from China’s Hanyuan county showed humans hand-pollinating pears, most likely in response to massive reductions in China’s bee population. But hiring humans is pricey. “MIT graduates calculated that the cost of hand-pollinating a hectare [about two acres] of apples would be approximately $5,715-$7,135. This compared to a recommendation of one two-story colony per acre at a high rental price of $45 per colony and $90 a hectare carries a much heftier price tag,” Niño says.
The USDA estimates that honeybees do $11-$15 billion in work for American farmers each year. That’s a cost that would be absorbed by American shoppers, resulting in shocking bills at the register. Spikes in prices would have real socioeconomic consequences, too, says Niño, pushing fresh fruits and veggies out of reach of the working poor, who already consume less of these items than their wealthier neighbors.
So how would the beepocolypse timeline happen? Within just three months of our last bee dying off, producers would be facing record low harvest yields. In cities, grocers would be scrambling to explain to consumers why almond butter costs had tripled. Within six months, many farmers—especially small-scale operations—would likely face tough choices about converting their fields to wheat. By the end of the first year, “we’d have a very bland and boring diet,” Dykes predicts.
While it wouldn’t be the end of humanity, Dykes likes to point out that it might be wise to think a bit about the chain of events that would get us to this point—and if there’s some way to avoid it. “If we lose all of our bees, that’s the least of our worries,” he says. As in, at that point we’d be living in a world so soiled and toxic that we’d have much bigger problems than paying $16 dollars an apple.
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