Did E. O. Wilson Claim That If Bees Die, We Die?

No, the eminent American naturalist did not make this statement exactly.  He made a comment about all insect arthropods.  In his own words, here is what he said.

A Little Background About Edward Osborne Wilson

E. O. Wilson is an American naturalist, 2-time Pulitzer prize winning biologist and researcher, who studied at the universities of Harvard and Alabama. 

Throughout his life, he exhibited a general interest in the natural world and its many life forms, from birds to fish and amphibians, but eventually developed his interest in arthropods.  He actually became a renowned myrmecologist – i.e. a person who studies ants - writing not only factual text books and monographs, but even an acclaimed fiction book: Anthill: A Novel.

In his own words, he says:

“In planning to be a professional naturalist.....I turned to the teeming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger, the little things that compose the foundations of our ecosystems, the little things that I like to say, run the world.”

He is deeply concerned about the impact of human activity on the eco-system, referring to his concerns in talks and lectures. 

For example, in a slide show Wilson delivered in April 1998 in Washington D.C., he said:

“Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. ... Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects" (1).

But If Bees Die, Will We Die?  Is That What E. O. Wilson Said?

No, he didn’t say that.  In a 2007 TED talk, he said:

“I've come, however, on a special misson on behalf of my constituency which are the ten to the 18th power - that's a million trillion - insects and other small creatures and to make a plea for them...... 

If we were to wipe out insects alone - just that group alone - on this planet - which we are trying hard to do the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land and from within a few months.”

He states this early on in his talk, but note he is referring to INSECTS as a group (- as well as referring earlier to the million trillion “insects and other small creatures”).

So We Won’t Die If Bees Disappear Then?

We don’t really know what would happen if bees died out, but it wouldn't be great!   We can guess that:

  • Certain crops would be affected, resulting in a reduction in the overall amount of crops produced.  For example, honey bees are important for the pollination of almonds, bumble and solitary bees ensure good crops of various other fruits, squashes and beans.
  • Human activity in the environment that negatively affects bees, is likely to affect a whole host of other invertebrates too.  For example, bees may be more visible to us, but loss of habitat along with pollution by pesticides, is likely to affect other pollinators and invertebrate species too.
  • The loss of pollinators could have very negative effects on other species – from other invertebrates to birds and small mammals that are dependent on berries, seeds and fruits in the wild  (and it should be said that bees and other insects are themselves a source of food for other species).

Again, in the words of E. O. Wilson:

"Humans are very busy engaging in activities that affect the earth and all its life forms, and yet we do not understand much of the environment and its life forms we are affecting". 

I agree!  If this is the case, shouldn't we proceed with caution and seek to preserve before we destroy?  I wrote about this some years ago in my blog about the web of life.

He goes on to say:

"The human juggernaut is permanently eroding the earth's ancient biosphere by a combination of forces that can be summarized by the acronym 'HIPPO'."

And what does ‘HIPPO’ stand for?

H

Habitat destruction


I


Invasive species that are flooding countries


P


Pollution


P


Population - i.e. continued human population expansion


O


Over harvesting by excessive hunting and fishing



Humans Can And Do Need To Behave More Responsibly Toward The Environment And Its Life Forms.....

Despite all this, I actually have a favourable opinion of the general motives of humanity. 

I believe most people want to see the beautiful earth and its many life forms, protected.  I don’t think humanity as a whole, is completely uncaring about the earth. 

Once we become aware of our impact, a good portion of us want to do our bit. 

Yes, I think that for some people, this is not true, but I do believe in the general good will of the majority – and that this care and goodwill is contagious! 

I look back on 2008 when I first started campaigning for bees, and I see that much has changed.  There is greater awareness about the plight of bees, with many individuals, businesses, councils and organisations all trying to do their bit for bees, by planting for bees and other pollinators, and taking actiont to get harmful insecticides banned. 

I believe these efforts, over time, can and will make a difference. 

The important point is to take any direct action we can take, as individuals, to help out.  There is no point spending lots of energy complaining about the activities of big corporations, if we are not going to take care in our own back yard.

E. O. Wilson Lecture

This is a great lecture from E.O. Wilson, and is less than half an hour long.  There is also a nice short video clip featuring leafcutter ants, so that’s another reason it gets a ‘thumbs up’ from me!  I hope you’ll take a look!




References:

(1) See more http://www.saveamericasforests.org/wilson/second.htm





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