By Noah LaVie | United States
Bees have been with humans as long as the dog, longer than wheat, and far beyond the wheel. In tandem, the human and the bee have created a cohabitation that benefits both species worldwide. Bees pollinate; humans protect and harvest. Bees have become such an important pollinator and spread to so many corners of the globe that any great depletion in numbers has been hypothesized to be catastrophic to the point of an extinction level event for humanity. That possibility begs the question, what happens if all the bees disappear? Will humanity really suffer?
The question itself isn’t conjecture. Bees are disappearing at rates alarming not just to melittologists but to the general public (Palmer 2016). Recent USDA NASS surveys suggest that the epidemic has reached critical mass, with bee losses in summer time surpassing that of bee losses in the winter for the first time (USDA 2018). This is caused by beehives being invaded by parasites (Meeus 2011), the proliferation of Colony Collapse Disorder (Bowers 1985), and the failure of Utah and Swedish teams to solve the mystery of continuing dropping numbers (Franzén 2013).
No method currently exists to estimate the total bee population, outside of domestication. However, scientists have recorded dramatic losses upwards of seventy percent of their population (Colla 2012). Clearly, the bee population is under threat and little can be done to stop it. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the human population.
Bees are disappearing at rates alarming not just to melittologists but to the general public.
What do bees do that makes then so vital? Bees pollinate. They are such good pollinators that they have evolved in tandem with many of the commercial food bearing plants such as apples, onions, and avocados. Their origins are so closely tied to the plants they pollinate that these plants reproduce solely through this process of pollination (Rehan 2013). By some estimates, two-thirds of food bearing plants depend primarily on bees for pollination (Palmer 2016).
Scientists have approximated the human capacity of the Earth to be about twelve billion. This number, however, is dependent on the diversity of plant life, the ability of the Earth to replenish resources, and modernization of agriculture. The bee is a key component to the diversity of plant life and Earth’s resource replenishment. Yet, it hasn’t yet been replaced by any modern technique (Berlatsky 2012).
The likelihood of extinction is indisputable and the amount we depend on the bee is insurmountable. The question then becomes, have humans ever survived without the supplement of the bee? The answer is no. Bees’ relationship with humanity stretches further back than domestication (Bowers 1985), past humanity’s evolution into Homo Sapiens, and into the Late Cretaceous Period (Rehan 2013). This period of time features the breakup of the first Pangaea, the rise of mammals, and the K-T Extinction Event. This event is also known as the moment the dinosaurs went extinct and thousands of other species with them.
Bees’ origins are closer to that of the Tyrannosaurus Rex than the Human. It was here that plant life received a reboot in evolutionary terms. Based on the evidence received from an investigation into the origins of bees, led by famed melittologist Sandra Rehan and funded by the Australian Parliament, this plant life reboot happened while the Earth moved on from Pangaea, before the asteroid struck, and at the right time when bees also were evolving into a pollinating species (Rehan 2013). This took place over seventy million years ago.
For context, the first modern humans likely appeared on the scene only three hundred thousand years ago and the Homo Genus only came to be about two and a half million years ago. After humanity began to understand itself, around the same time that humanity domesticated the dog, they domesticated the bee about twenty thousand years ago. This came before the agricultural revolution when humans were still operating on a hunter-gatherer basis. The bee had spread across the entire globe and proliferated itself as the main pollinator to such an extent that even primitive man realized the importance of these small, but busy, bees.
Humans have never survived on this planet without the assistance of bees.
If the extinction of bees is likely, if humans depend on bees, and humanity has never existed without the bee, what happens when bees disappear? Bees are currently estimated to be down forty percent in population since just last year. This trend has been going on since 2006 when the die-offs first began (Colla 2012). Since 2006 over fifty-five percent of the bee population has irrevocably been eliminated through the various causes discussed.
At fifty-five percent of the bee population down, we’ve already begun to see symptoms of their demise. Onion prices have skyrocketed, reaching selling prices previously not imagined as bee populations die off in their production areas. This same trend is visible in watermelon, cucumber, squash, carrot, clover, and many other plants.
This is different from inflation, where the price rises due to consumer’s value of all products and the value of the dollar. It is directly caused by the rise in bee deaths and the slow, painful extinction of them across the globe (Palmer 2016). These plants simply aren’t reproducing as much, bearing fruit as much, or producing as much food as they would with the bee population down. A reasonable observer may posit that high prices and scarcity are nothing to be feared. A more careful examination, however, would produce a different result. This is with the bee population only at fifty-five percent. Even estimating what losses at seventy percent would be is eye-opening.
Again, this report is not observing the loss of honeybees (Apis mellifera), a subspecies of the Anthophila family, but the loss of all bee species in totality. What each species brings to the palate of the human race however cannot be underestimated. Once Honeybees reach seventy percent extinction, their total extinction is inevitable. All one-hundred and eighty-three plant species that depend on the honeybee will be doomed to go extinct (Palmer 2016). The effect on the world’s population carrying capacity is estimated to be about a net loss of six billion in hold capacity. If the world’s carrying capacity was twelve billion before, the loss of the bee drops it to six billion. That puts humanity over the top at seven and a half billion.
The world would no longer be able to feed the average citizen (Boulter 2002).
Once Bumblebee population losses have reached seventy percent lost since 2006 there will be no reversing the trend of loss. The average world citizen will say goodbye to the Tomato, the Eggplant, the Lima Bean, the Soybean, the Green Bean, and the Potato (Meeus 2011). The plants will be either too expensive or extinct at this point.
Once Solitary Bees, also known as wild bees, reach seventy percent lost they will be unrecoverable. Avocado, Beet, Papaya, and Mango will be bound for extinction at this point. These plants depend solely on this bee for pollination and barring some ecological miracle are already bound for this destination as their prices and yield have reached critical mass. After the proliferation of the Honeybee in North America, Solitary Bees have been driven to near extinction already and are estimated to have reached critical percentages of seventy-five percent population loss since the days of Columbus (Franzén 2013).
This loss of population is not the wild bees’ fault, honeybees possess nothing wild bees do not. Instead, wild bees possess better pollination skills and are found to suffer much less from colony collapse disorder. One would expect they would fare better and in an equal world, they would. Honeybees, however, have one thing wild bees by definition can never possess: human cultivation.
Honeybees are a foreign body anywhere outside the Philippines, their origin, and were once considered an invasive species in North America and Europe (Colla 2012). This invasiveness has led to a high degree of variability in native wild bee populations and has caused a source-sink dynamic to result. High-quality wild bee populations are forced to be on the move while low-quality wild bee populations absorb their higher quality peers into their own populations. This results in the future of the wild bee changing from population growth to decline as greater portions of the wild bee populace move to the “sink” which then becomes the source and causes the population to drain.
An article written by journalist Brian Palmer for the National Resource Defense Council in 2016 on the topic of the bees’ extinction claims that their disappearance “would make [some] foods scarce.” He states that “humanity would survive—but our dinners would get a lot less interesting.” On the claim that our dinners would get “less interesting,” he is certainly not mistaken. However, when he claims that humanity would survive he is talking about just honeybees’ extinction (Palmer 2016). This failure to extend his premise to the greatest sufferers, wild bees and bumblebees, results in a false summation: humans will survive. The fact is this: humans will die in this agonizing process of bee extinction.
The fact is this: humans will die in this agonizing process of bee extinction.
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Boulter, Michael Charles. Extinction : Evolution and the End of Man. Columbia University Press, 2002.
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Colla, S. R, et al. “Documenting Persistence of Most Eastern North American Bee Species (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Anthophila) to 1990–2009.” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, vol. 85, no. 1, 2012, pp. 14–22.
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