What Would Happen if All the Bees Died Tomorrow?
It’s not just about honey shortages, of course.
By AC Shilton
Mar 1 2017
Spend enough time sifting through the detritus of fake quotes that is The Internet and you’ll probably see this:
If bees disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.
The line is usually attributed to Einstein, and it seems plausible enough. After all, Einstein knew a lot about science and nature, and bees help us produce food. But, like much of the fearmongering out there, it’s worth doing some basic debunking before you share this nugget of doom.
First, the easy part: “I’ve never seen anything definitively link the quote to Einstein,” says Mark Dykes, the chief inspector for Texas Apiary Inspection Service. Quote checkers like this one, and this one agree. But debunking its message? That’s more complicated.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of pollinators in our ecosystem. In case you missed this day in high school biology, when a male flower loves a female flower, it invites a pollinator to round out its threesome. The bee transfers pollen from the male flower to the lady bits of female flowers. A few days later, a baby watermelon or apple emerges.
While bees are not the only pollinators we have (bats, birds, butterflies, and some flies can do this work, too), they’re by far the best creatures for the job. In part, this is because they need pollen to feed their larvae, so they’re biologically driven to gather the stuff. Other pollinators visit flowers only to suck nectar, and any pollen that sticks to them in the process is a happy accident.
“Additionally, most [bee] species are fuzzy, and those hairs attract pollen grains, making the bees even more likely to pollinate,” says Jessica Beckham, a post-doctoral researcher studying bumblebees at the University of North Texas. Bees also provide food for some bird species, so if a cataclysmic event sent all our bees into rapture, the aftershocks would ripple up the food chain.
Unfortunately, that rapture may be coming. While incidences of colony collapse disorder—or entire hives being wiped out overnight—have slowed in the past few years, “just because we don’t see as high occurrence of CCD does not mean that honey bees are doing great,” says Elina L. Niño, who runs a bee research lab at UC Davis, in California. “There are many other factors that honeybees and beekeepers have to deal with and we are still losing thousands of colonies per year,” Niño adds. The current scourges of honeybees include a parasitic mite called the varrao mite and the new presidential administration.
In 2013, the Obama administration implemented a Pollinator Protection Research Plan, which tasked all government agencies with reviewing ways to protect birds, bats, butterflies, and bees. It used this intel to implement the Pollinator Protection Plan in 2016. Though the plan, which calls for increasing habitat and decreasing pesticide use is still new, it’s been heralded as an important first step towards helping vulnerable pollinator populations. But both Niño and Beckham are concerned that Trump’s promise to shrink—or even eliminate—the EPA, and to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, may make the 2016 victory of the Pollinator Protection Plan short-lived.