A world without bees: What would happen if bees died out?

Svět bez včel: Co by se stalo, když včely vymřou? - Davidova ekologická včelí farma

Assessing our chances of survival without that amazing pollinator.

A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that bee losses in managed colonies that beekeepers lease to farmers have reached 42 percent this year.

That number grabbed most of the headlines, but there were other troubling figures lurking beneath the surface. The magic number in beekeeping is 18.7 percent. Population losses below this level are sustainable; however, they lose even more and the colony is headed for zero. A surprising two-thirds of beekeepers in the USDA survey reported losses above the threshold, indicating that the pollination industry is struggling.

USDA reported more summer losses than winter for the first time. Experts are at a loss to explain the turnaround — especially since the colony collapse epidemic that peaked a few years ago appears to have abated. Summer losses may have a single unknown cause, or a group of known and compounding causes such as pesticides or mites.

Albert Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying: "If the bee disappeared from the face of the earth, man would have no more than four years left to live." Although it is highly unlikely that the famous Albert Einstein would have said this - firstly, there is no evidence that he ever made such a statement, and secondly, the statement is hyperbolic and incorrect (and Einstein was rarely wrong), there is a grain of truth in the famous misquote.

Bees and agriculture

Bees and humans have been through a lot together. According to the late and prominent melittologist (melittology - the study of bees) Eva Crane, humans began keeping bees as early as 20,000 BC. To put this time in perspective, the average global temperature 22,000 years ago was more than 35 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, and ice sheets covered much of North America. Beekeeping probably predates the dawn of agriculture, which occurred about 12,000 years ago, and certainly made agriculture possible.

How important are bees to agriculture today? If you ask this question to 10 journalists, you will get 11 answers. Some stories say that bees pollinate more than two-thirds of our most important crops, while others say it's closer to one-third. A margin of this size suggests a lack of education on the subject. My literature review suggests the same.

The most thorough and informative study came in 2007, when an international team of agricultural scientists reviewed the importance of insect pollinators, including bees, to agriculture. Their results could encourage both alarmists and minimizers. The group found that 87 crops worldwide employ insect pollinators, compared to only 28 that can survive without such help. Considering that bees are the consensus most important pollinator, these are scary numbers.

Look at the data another way, though, and it's clear why the misattributed Einstein quote is a bit of an exaggeration. About 60 percent of the total amount of food grown worldwide does not require pollination by insects. Many staple foods, such as wheat, rice and corn, are among the 28 crops that require no help from bees. They either pollinate themselves or the wind helps them. These foods make up a huge portion of human caloric intake worldwide.

Even among the 87 crops that use animal pollinators, there are varying degrees of how much plants need them. Only 13 of them absolutely require insect pollination, while 30 others are "highly dependent" on it. Production of the remaining crops would probably continue without bees with only slightly lower yields.

Okay, so can we live without bees?

The truth is that if bees disappeared for good, humans probably wouldn't go extinct (at least not for that reason alone). But our diets would still suffer immensely. The variety of food available would decrease and the cost of some products would increase. For example, the California Almond Board has been campaigning to save bees for years. The group says that without bees and their ilk, almonds "simply wouldn't exist". We would still have coffee without bees, but it would become expensive and rare. A coffee flower is only open for pollination for three or four days. If no insects appear in this short window, the plant will not be pollinated.

There are plenty of other examples: apples, avocados, onions and several types of berries depend on bees for pollination. The disappearance of bees, or even a substantial decline in their population, would make these foods scarce. Humanity would survive - but our dinners would be much less interesting.