Bees Not So Critical To Human Life After All

Entomologist at the University of Washington want to breed "resilient" bees to curb the extinction of the species.
Entomologist at the University of Washington want to breed “resilient” bees to curb the extinction of the species.

It is common knowledge today that bee pollination is important to human existence. But, how critical are bees to human life after all? Washington State University has begun breeding “resilient specimens” of honey bees that will help stave off the crisis in honey bee populations, in turn, the inference is that we might also curb the extinction of humanity. So, the University’s entomology Department plans to build a bee “sperm bank” in order to accomplish this challenging goal.

U.S. honey bees are in crisis, with colonies collapsing after worker bees abruptly disappear. Invasive mites, pesticides and lack of nutritional variety due to agricultural monoculture are thought to be contributing to the problem, says entomology professor Steve Sheppard.

As a result, a stronger breed of bees are said to be needed. Plant and animal breeders create stronger varieties by breeding in resilient specimens, says Susan Cobey, a WSU research associate working with Sheppard.

What the professors didn’t mention was the implied significance attached to honey bees on account of the perceived importance to human life. What we so often hear, in the general population–outside of the universities–, is that bees pollinate most of the worlds plants and we depend on the plants and bees for our own lives.

However, researchers at the University of Georgia, have a more nuanced opinion. Does human life depend on bee pollination? No. To what extent does the quality of human life depend on bee pollination? Well, it depends on where you live and what crops were talking about, says Keith S. Delaplane, Professor, Dept. Entomology.

The popular paraphrase ‘honey bees are responsible for every third bite of food we eat’ is an example of the “hyperbole” spoken by many who have a little grasp of entomology, according to Professor Delaplane. But, bees are not that critical to all human life the world-over. He goes on to say,”I suspect that even in 1976 this estimate was generous and applicable only to the most affluent economies where hay-powered beef and dairy products, oilseeds, and fruits make up a significant fraction of the diet.”

Which leads us to the types of societies that will definitely feel the pinch from a decline in bees. Delephane states, the authors of the FAO analysis concluded that the proportion of global food production attributable to animal pollination ranges from 5% in industrialized nations to 8% in the developing world. So, this might make some of us skeptical types conclude that the more advanced our societies become, the less dependent we become on bees.

According to Deleplane, these numbers are in stark contrast with McGregor and can be explained by the fact that his and other earlier estimates tended to minimize the degree to which crops vary in their dependence on animal pollinators. About 75% of the worlds crops benefit to some degree from animal pollination; only 10% of that 75% depend fully on animal pollination.

A second explanation is that pollinator-dependent crops tend to have lower average production levels than non-pollinated crops. One can summarize from this paper that most of the calories that sustain human life derive from non-pollinator-dependent crops; in addition, Deleplane commented that global demand for animal-pollinated crops is increasing faster than the demand for non-pollinated staples. The fraction of total production made up of animal-pollinated crops grew from 3.6% in 1961 to 6.1% in 2006, and even these statistics mask a huge jump in the years since 1990.

People increasingly” want ice cream, blueberry tarts, watermelon, almond chocolate bars, coffee, and yes McDonald’s hamburgers – and the trend shows no sign of slowing. So, to what extent does the quality of human life depend on bee pollination? I would say a lot – if you are fortunate enough to live in an economy where bee-pollinated crops make up a significant fraction of what one considers a normal diet”, comments Deleplane. What we gather is that bees are important to are luxurious taste in the developed world–some may consider this extremely vital, and who can blame them? What’s summertime without ice cream and watermelon?

What we can extract from these critical pieces of information is this: Human life will go on after all with or without bees.

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