Is it true that if bees die, we die?
Do we really need bees to grow all our food?
With the publicity surrounding bee decline, these are common questions. People are asking themselves how much we need to be concerned. I sometimes get asked these questions, among others, such as:
Another question tends to focus on honey bees: "If honey bees (specifically) disappear, will humans starve, and do honey bees do all the pollinating?"
Let’s tackle these questions.
Firstly, studies have shown, that in terms of crop pollination, wild pollinators can do the job of honey bees at least for some crops.
For example, a study (published Feb 2013) by Garibaldi et al states that wild pollinators enhance fruit set of crops, regardless of honey bee abundance, and that pollination by managed honey bees supplemented, rather than substituted, pollination by wild insects. (You can find the study here - copy and paste the web address into a new window: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6127/1608)
Thus in an agricultural system where insect pollinator abundance is promoted and can thrive, a variety of bees and pollinating insects will quite naturally pollinate crops, and will do the bulk of the pollinating.
However, without a doubt, honey bees are very important for certain crops, such as almonds, and their importance extends even beyond pollination services!
But, it does seem that if honey bees disappeared off the planet tomorrow (not that we would want them to!), then in theory, other pollinators could step in to replace honey bees to pollinate at least some - and probably quite a lot of our food crops.
Such a scenario requires that wild pollinators are available and can thrive on farmland - the land where pollination is required.
Domesticated honey bees kept by keepers, are moved around from one area to another, and a beekeeper can step in to take action and assist the colony if necessary.
But this is obviously not the case for wild bees. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that in order to encourage wild bees, environmental conditions have to be right, which means:
Indeed, formerly wild bee species are increasingly being reared commercially and are being sold for pollination services to farmers who otherwise could not guarantee the presence of these pollinators on their land.
No, because to continue to rely on commercial rearing of particular pollinators for food crops, instead of addressing the problems that are causing decline, is risky for food security, and it is taking a sticking plaster approach to solving our problems.
We might be able to breed a few bee species, but we cannot breed one of every bee, butterfly, moth and pollinating beetle, not to mention a myriad other beneficial invertebrates.
It also ignores the importance of diversity and species abundance in the wider landscape and this inter-related ecosystem. Simply breeding a few more bee species for commercial pollination merely solves a potential glitch in preserving intense farming practices.
Unfortunately, honey bees are not the only bee species – or even pollinator or invertebrate species having problems. Wild species and invertebrates have been declining.
The focus on honey bees in the media may create a distorted impression of the real scenario. However, the reason honey bees have received so much focus, is because they are more closely observed by humans than any other invertebrate species.
For example, commercial beekeepers such as Tom Theobald providing pollination services to agriculture, as well as hobby beekeepers, have collectively raised alarm for quite some years, and especially in connection with neonicotinoid pesticides.
Nevertheless, the problems faced by honey bees and reported by beekeepers, really should raise alarm generally, because it should lead us to ask questions:
What some research tells us is that with species decline, there occurs a corresponding degradation or decline in vegetation/the wider eco-system.
They found that half of the wild bee species had disappeared over the time frame, and that the quantity and quality of pollination services had declined through time.
They concluded that although the environment had adapted, the eco-system had been compromised, and that further degradation would have serious impacts.
REF: Burkle et al: Plant-Pollinator Interactions over 120 Years: Loss of Species, Co-Occurrence, and Function; publ. Feb 2013. (Ref: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6127/1611)
They found that the number of bee species declined significantly in over half of the areas analysed.
- a significant decline in species numbers was recorded in 52% of the 10 x 10km geographical squares they analysed in the UK, whilst bee diversity increased in only 10% of squares; and overall, there were 29% fewer bee and hoverfly species occurring in Britain after 1980.
- a significant decline in species numbers was recorded in 67% of Dutch geographical squares, whilst bee diversity increased in only 4% of squares.
Generally, there may be some overlap in pollination of some plants by some species (i.e. multiple pollinators may provide a potential pollination service for particular plants).
However, this is not always the case.
What the evidence suggests is that loss of species does not necessarily mean that this will definitely be compensated for by other species, and that unfortunately, biodiversity foots the bill.
Indeed, we know that certain plant species can only be pollinated by a very limited number of insect species.
For example, some species of orchid and fig are only pollinated by particular wasp species.
Many reports can be found on the internet, however, here are a few examples of resources detailing decline of bees and other insects:
We don't know what the effects would be!
It is generally proposed that bees are responsible for a third of the food we eat, but it's not always easy to work out how this figure was calculated.
Thus, there are many questions:
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