Will We all Die if Honey Bees Disappear?

Bumble bees have been pollinating sunflowers, an important crop for Native Americans, long before the arrival of the honey bee © Beatriz Moisset

Bumble bees have been pollinating sunflowers, an important crop for Native Americans,
long before the arrival of the honey bee
© Beatriz Moisset

One third of our food needs to be pollinated by insects. Honey bees are responsible for most of it. With 4,000 species of bees in North America plus numerous other pollinators of different stripes, how did we manage to become so dependent on just a single species? We know how important it is to diversify our portfolio, our diet, and our crops and gardens. So, what were we thinking?

We hear constant bad news about the situation of the honey bee. Their populations have been dwindling for the past fifty years. They took a sharper dip in the 1980s with the introduction of the varroa mite and a second sharp drop in the past few years with what came to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder. What would happen if all honey bees were to disappear from North America? Is it true that fruits and vegetables would disappear from supermarkets? Is it possible that we would all be dead in a few years?

Let us remember that there were no honey bees in this continent a few hundred years ago. Native Americans ate a healthy diet which included squash and beans, sunflower seeds, chestnuts and a variety of berries, all of them pollinated by native bees. More recently, small farms and vegetable gardens still could obtain enough pollination services without managed bee hives.

A squash bee doing its work early in the morning before other flower visitors show up © Beatriz Moisset

A squash bee doing its work early in the morning
before other flower visitors show up
© Beatriz Moisset

Present day farming or agribusiness, with its enormous monoculture fields, requires managed pollinators: hives with large numbers of workers that can be trucked long distances and moved from crop to crop as the seasons progress.

If all honey bees disappeared, it would be catastrophic for agriculture, as we know it, and we would certainly suffer grievously, but we would survive. Nevertheless, over time, other pollinators could, and would, take over all the tasks that the Jack-of-all-trades performs today. This would require profound changes in agriculture to meet these pollinators’ needs such as nesting habitat, diversity of crops, protection from pesticides and more. Fortunately, several groups of pollination experts are already exploring this issue and coming with alternatives.

Apples, pears, cherries, crabapples, etc. belong to the same floral syndrome They have a similar structure and are visited by the same types of pollinators © Beatriz Moisset

Apples, pears, cherries, crab apples, etc. belong to the same floral syndrome
They have a similar structure and are visited by the same types of pollinators
© Beatriz Moisset

A metallic green bee, Augochlora pura © Beatriz Moisset

A metallic green bee
© Beatriz Moisset

The flowers of almonds, apples and cherries, as well as those of native crab apples and wild cherries are enthusiastically visited by native and non-native bees alike. The alfalfa leaf cutter bee and the alkali bee do a better job than honey bees at pollinating alfalfa. Wild bees are far superior to honey bees at pollinating the native blueberries and cranberries. Nonetheless, beehives are used for the pollination of these crops because honey bees compensate in numbers what they lack in finesse.

Would we all die if honey bees disappeared overnight? The answer is an emphatic no. Would the environment benefit from the changes imposed in agriculture? My guess is yes. What is yours?

Spring beauty bee © Beatriz Moisset

Spring beauty bee
© Beatriz Moisset

Do native plant gardens, nature centers or wildflower preserves need honey bees? No, they do not. Native plants and local ecosystems need native pollinators. Bring them all, the shiny metallic ones, the fuzzy fat bumble bees, the leaf cutters, and the long horned ones, the ground nesters and those that prefer hollow tubes. Bring in the generalists and also the specialists, like the azalea bee, the spring beauty Andrena, the trout lily Andrena, the blueberry bee and the squash bee. We want the ones that are active briefly in early spring or in the summer and fall, and also the long lived ones that stick around through the seasons. Finally, let us not forget the flies, wasps, moths and all the others. The native plant garden needs them all and benefits from this wealth of species.

Azalea bee © Beatriz Moisset

Azalea bee
© Beatriz Moisset

 

A variety of native pollinators: metallic green bee, Andrena, bumble bee, leafcutter Megachile © Beatriz Moisset

A variety of native pollinators:
metallic green bee, Andrena, bumble bee, leafcutter Megachile
© Beatriz Moisset

Update: Please, don’t  miss the follow up article “Bring back the Native Pollinators.” You will find some answers.

 

Additional readings

Agroforestry: Sustaining Native Bee Habitat for Crop Pollination
Native Pollinators in Agricultural Hedgerows: An Alternative to Honeybee Colonies for Crop Pollination
Native Pollinators in Anthropogenic Habitats
Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards (Xerces Society)
Native Bees, Native Plants and Crop Pollination in California
Native bees are better pollinators, more plentiful than honeybees, finds entomologist (Cornell University)
Organic Farming for Bees. Conservation of Native Crop Pollinators in Organic Farming Systems (Xerces Society)

© 2014, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Beatriz, the way I understand it native bees are also affected by the decline while the ‘profound changes’ in agriculture you mention would also benefit the honeybees…

    • says

      The pesticides will kill the bumble bees and other wild species just as surely as the honey bees. In fact they will be more apt to kill them, since they have no human protectors.

      • says

        Indeed, pesticides pose a worse threat to wild bees than to managed bees. The latter can be kept out of harm’s way, at least in theory. I suspect you, Dave, know more than most of us about cases in which things go wrong.

        Pesticides are one of the reasons why we have become so dependent on honey bees in some cases. The native squash and blueberry bees are far more efficient than honey bees in pollinating their respective crops. However, if pesticides are used, nobody will be there to protect the native bees. Later on, beehives can be brought to do the job.
        Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Roadside Pollinator Gardens and Traffic

    • Vincent Vizachero says

      Many native bees are solitary bees: they don’t form the same kind of large, dense colonies that honeybees do.

      For this reason, while pesticides ARE still a threat to native bees, many species of native pollinators do no face the same kind of colony-related problems that honey bees contend with.

    • says

      Honey bees and other bees share some of the same threats, such as pollution and pesticides. But, there are many other problems depending on each species. Some native bees are doing far worse than honey bees, others aren’t doing so bad. Would you believe that, in a convoluted way, honey bees (because of the way they are used) contribute to the use of pesticides and, thus, are bad for other pollinators? Crops can be sprayed before the arrival of beehives or after they are gone. This protects the honey bees but kills other species that have nowhere to hide. This is why, if there were no honey bees, farmers would have to change their practices radically to welcome other pollinators. It would be a monumental change, but one that I would welcome.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Beginners Guide to Pollinators

      • John Sweet says

        All life on earth is interdependent whether it be the bee or the whale. When you artificialy alter the environment and place such a strain on a species as to make their tenure impossible in the long term, then the future of mankind is itself finite. The passing of the bee may not serve as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and man’s fate may not be to have four years of recrimination before the lights go out permanently. But commonsense suggests with every brick you pull out of a wall the probable it is your house will fall down

        • says

          John thanks for your comment. It is so broad that I don’t quite see the connection with the discussion presented here. If by “the bee” you mean the “honey bee” rest assured that it is nowhere near extinction. I presented this hypothetical case for all those who erroneously assume that the honey bee is the only species of bee, unaware of all the other thousands of pollinators. In fact, if we lost all pollinators we would most certainly be doomed. Not only our food sources would be severely impaired, but entire ecosystems would collapse.

          I must remind you that the honey bee has been in this continent for only a few hundred years. There are more hives now than there were a hundred and twenty years ago. If, by some unusual circumstances, the honey bee was entirely wiped out from this country, it would be catastrophic to agriculture, our pocket book and our dinner plate, but not to the ecosystems. We would survive, flowering plants would survive and native pollinators would prosper.

          Now, if by “the bee” you mean the 4,000 species in this country or the 20,000 in the entire world, I heartily agree with you that every life is precious. The loss of any species, no matter how obscure and unknown to us is worth preserving. Once again, if the honey bee disappeared from this continent, the absence of this competitor would be a boom to many native bees. It is possible that some species of native pollinators may have gone extinct since the arrival of the domesticated bee.

          I hope this helps you understand the central points of this article.
          Beatriz Moisset recently posted..The Importance of Native Pollinators

  2. says

    Nice article. But I never thought the point was that loss of honeybees would mean extinction of the human race, but that loss of honeybees reflects the damage of possibly multiple insults to nature (pesticides, climate change, pollution, overpopulation) caused by humans, that will affect, or already are affecting, various and sundry other types of wildlife, including native pollinators. It’s a bad sign no matter how you look at it.

    It would be a great thing indeed if we humans were to approach the honeybee decline with greater efforts to conserve native pollinators and their habitat, and shift our farming practices away from monocultures and towards permaculture, but I’m not so sure that will happen. So often we turn to technology and chemical management for solutions.

    • says

      We often read the statement (sometimes erroneously attributed to Einstein) “if bees become extinct humanity has only a few years to live” or similar words. It is probably true that we would die if ALL species of bees disappeared. However, most people I talk to think: bee=honey bee. They remain totally unaware of all the other pollinators. It is these readers I am trying to reach. Otherwise, please, forgive the title. It is just a mental exercise. Honey bees may be having serious troubles but there is no indication that they are approaching extinction.

      On the other hand, such title may call attention to my main point: we shouldn’t be so dependent on a single species for our food. We should diversify and take advantage of the pollinators biodiversity. Moreover, as you point out, agriculture would be more sustainable and the environment would be healthier if we didn’t rely so heavily on pesticides, monocultures and related farming practices. These are the reasons why we have become so dependent on honey bees.

      It is comforting that several groups of scientists are studying ways to take advantage of native pollinators. In fact, in a few cases, native bees are doing the pollination and honey bees are just a supplement. http://www.iee.unibe.ch/unibe/philnat/biology/zoologie/ecol/content/e7049/e267480/e267538/e271515/e293460/Garibaldi_2013_Science.pdf
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..The Monarch’s Breadbasket

  3. Dea says

    While I am glad this article didn’t take the “Gloom and Doom” approach, I have to ask, where did you come up with the idea of “Honey bees are responsible for most of it (pollination).”?

    While bees are an important pollinator, they are outclassed and out worked by the FLIES. Only plants requiring sonication would be truly affected – and I bet there are researchers working on a tech solution, like blasting the correct frequency over a field needing it, such as tomatoes, potatoes or eggplant (it can also be done by hand, with a tuning fork). If all the honey bees died tomorrow, we would see shortages of these sorts of items in our markets, but they would still be produced and sold – just at a higher price.

    Bees are important, but let’s no forget the FLIES…
    http://si-pddr.si.edu/bitstream/10088/9619/1/FCT_115.pdf

    • says

      I am very fond of flies as pollinators, so I have looked into it for sometime. In fact, I am eating a piece of chocolate. I wouldn’t be able to do that if it wasn’t for a midge, my favorite pollinator. Thanks for the link to that interesting article. Flies are important pollinators, but don’t come near the importance of bees. Bees are specially designed to carry pollen with their feathery hairs and their pollen combs or baskets. Moreover they visit numerous flowers because they have to feed their babies, not just themselves. Flies aren’t that hairy, so fewer pollen grains cling to them. They only feed themselves with nectar and pollen, so they linger at each flower. In the time a bee visits a couple of dozen flowers, a hover fly may have been sitting on just one. http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2009/10/busy-pollinator-and-relaxed-one.html

      It is important to determine the efficacy of a pollinator: how many flowers it visits, how many pollen grains reach the stigma of another flower and, most of all, how many seeds set per flower. That is how we know that squash bees, alkali bees, and blueberry bees are more efficient than honey bees, for instance. These studies prove that flies are minor pollinators when compared to bees. Lucilia flies are used in a couple of crops, onions and cabbages, though.

      Buzz pollination, that you happen to mention, is not done by honey bees but by bumble bees and many species of solitary bees. So that part of your comment doesn’t apply to an article about the disappearance of the honey bee. http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2013/09/buzz-pollination-of-fabaceae-flowers.html

      The main point of this article is that we should diversify and take full advantage of native pollinators for our crops. We should not depend solely on the introduced honey bee.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Buzz Pollination of Fabaceae Flowers

  4. Andrew Serafin says

    Dear Author,
    Are you ready to survive without honey bees? God bless you! Better save the pesticides right?

    • says

      Pesticides pose a bigger threat to wild bees than to honey bees. At least, bee hives can be kept safely away when spraying is taking place. Nobody protects the wild bees (http://polinizador.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/native-bees-conservation/). So, if we had to rely on native pollinators, we would have to reduce the use of pesticides. We would also have to create habitat for pollinators. All this would benefit the environment. I suggest you read the article in its entirety as well as some of the comments. Also, you may want to get acquainted with the work of those who are bringing native pollinators to agriculture, for instance, the Xerces Society, http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/. You may also want to read the articles listed at the end.

      BTW, do you know that honey bees are treated with pesticides, such as miticides? http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/pdfs/2.03%20copy.pdf
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..When did “Common Milkweed” Become Common?

    • Sophia says

      Amen to that! Everyone on this forum seems so eager to “show off” their knowledge or lack of it about pollinators, but as I hate to waste time and have no need to impress others, let me tell you that the main threat is not just the decline of the honey bee or any other pollinators but rather the use of pesticides which greedy people are making and selling at a great profit, killing everything that comes even close to anything they have been sprayed on and that you, me and our children end up eating. Common sense should dictate to everyone that we should all unite and be against pesticides – period.

  5. says

    Beatriz, This is such a critical and illuminating article and I so agree with you, especially about the need to change our present agricultural system, though I think the meaning of the word agriculture was lost somewhere decades ago. There is a inspiring renaissance of small farms swelling about the country and world that is so incredible and hopeful. Our native bees, flies, moths and butterflies can buzz and flutter about without fear of pesticides or harmful chemicals. Wonderful photographs too! Particularly love the azalea bee shot!
    Carol Duke recently posted..A Frightfully Frigid Winter Interlude

    • says

      Thanks. Agriculture has become agribusiness with monocultures, pesticides and migratory beehives. It is true that productivity has grown significantly in some cases, for instance for almonds. However, such unnatural system cannot be sustainable.

      Cutting down on pesticides and creating habitat for native bees sounds like a wonderful thing. I almost wish that honey bees went away. Well, of course, there is a right place for them, but we do need to diversify the pollinators.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Roadside Pollinator Gardens and Traffic

  6. says

    Beatriz,
    Thank you for sharing this article. It takes a bit of patience to shift thinking from crisis/reaction, into realization of other solutions.

    When we look at the typical change curve it accurately has us move through Shock, Denial, Depression, and into Experimentation and ultimately into Accepted change. The honey bee challenge to the common gardener is probably still in denial or depression.

    Change agents, the purveyors of good news or suggestions to alternatives, are slowly starting to gain solidity with the masses. There are other bees out there. We can use them. They pollinate better. They have their own issues with chemicals, habitat loss, etc. Keep your eyes open. This is the Experimentation phase. It loosely began last year and will take many years to gain footholds in backyard gardens and smaller farming fields.

    There are multiple grants now being carried out that are looking to explore non-apis solutions. It will be years until the results trickle into the farmlands, but trickle it will. One of our biggest issues is the number of bees necessary and the change in farming practices that will be required. That’s where the BeeGAP (Gardeners adding Pollinators) model will hopefully create solutions.

    Ultimately, we’ll have accepted Change.

    Today, we must continue to beat the drum that there are alternatives. We’ll get heard.

    Thank you for this article Beatriz. I’d like to post it on our website with all appropriate links. Let me know if this is ok please.

      • says

        Thank you Carole. This is a perfect solution that has our readers find the root author quickly, yet understand where they are headed first. There is such great content in the web. Helping readers find the good ones is our pleasure!

    • says

      You see abundant honey bees in LA and my beekeeper friend tells me his hives are doing fine. So what? Isolated examples prove nothing. The number of beehives in the US has dropped from 5 million in the 1950s to 2.5 million in recent years. Take a look at this graph and the Yale Scientific Magazine article
      http://www.yalescientific.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ColoniesGraph.jpg
      http://www.yalescientific.org/2013/02/the-secret-life-of-bee-bacteria-gut-microbiota-may-yield-clues-to-honey-bee-health/

      Moreover, I posed a hypothetical question, didn’t make an assertion. No need for a reality check then. As a matter of fact, I have said repeatedly that honey bees may be in serious trouble but nowhere near extinction. The purpose of this mental exercise is to become aware of the role of other pollinators. Personally, I believe we would be better off without honey bees because growers of insect-pollinated crops would be forced to reduce pesticides and improve habitat for native pollinators.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Beginners Guide to Pollinators

      • Paul Cherubini says

        On the professional beekeepers forum the beekeepers themselves say: “The reality is that for the past 15-20 years, the number of managed colonies in America has remained fairly constant at about 2.5 million colonies, give or take fluctuations of a few hundred thousand in some years.” http://tinyurl.com/l8wr8ln

        And: “Thirty years ago, when we had twice as many colonies in the USA, people spoke of the disaster we would have if we lost half the hives. Well, the hives are gone, and stuff still gets pollinated. In fact, the shortage drove the fees up, making pollination much more lucrative. People are still talking about pollination shortages and the effect it will have. But nobody has any evidence anything didn’t get pollinated. Further, a very large part of our food comes from other countries, many of which do not have bee shortages at all. All media hype.” http://tinyurl.com/lpgna94

        • says

          Once again, you are citing personal comments. Moreover one of them declares that we have lost 50% of the hives in the last 50 years, just what the statistics show. Please, take a look at the graph published by Yale Scientific Magazine.

          Besides, your point is irrelevant. I am presenting a hypothetical case to make people think about the value of native pollinators. They could perform all the services provided by honey bees nowadays with the added advantage that it would be healthier for the environment.

          I repeat, I am not concerned with the possibility of honey bees going extinct.
          Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Beginners Guide to Pollinators

  7. Tia says

    “Would we all die if honey bees disappeared overnight? The answer is an emphatic no. Would the environment benefit from the changes imposed in agriculture? My guess is yes. What is yours?”
    I beg your pardon?!?! The first two sentences are correct, but do you want to live on alfalfa?
    Yes, a change needs to be imposed in agriculture but not at the expense of the honey bee. The honey bee does, in fact, pollinate one-third of our food. And despite your claim, honey bees pollinate one hundred per cent of our almond crop. As a beekeeper I always promote not only the honey bee, but all–all–pollinators. They work together for our best crops. I got started in beekeeping because nothing was pollinating my squash despite the fact that I am overrun with native bees and other pollinators. Honey bees are the only pollinators that overwinter as a colony and are ready to go in the very early spring when fruit trees bloom. Without honey bees to pollinate those early blossoms, our fruit supply would go down by ninety per cent. It seems to me that you theory is another way of taking the easy way out. I am a chemical free, organic gardener/beekeeper/chicken owner and since getting the synthetic stuff out of my soil and plantings beneficials have moved in in droves. Work with the pollinators–all pollinators–and they will work with you.

    • says

      Tia, thanks for your comments. Cattle need alfalfa. No alfalfa, no beef or milk!

      Despite your passionate words, we probably agree more than disagree. It seems that you care deeply for the environment and practice natural beekeeping. I doubt it you would be fond of the industrialized pollination used nowadays in conjunction to some pesticide-laden monocrops.

      Let us take a look at almond fields. Ground cover used to include clover along with a few “weeds.” This changed with mega agribusiness. Herbicides are used, to kill everything under the trees; some severely controlled short grasses are allowed between rows, that is all. No food or nesting habitat for pollinators or other beneficial insects. The only living creatures are the ones that feed on almond trees. So, next come the pesticides. If any pollinators survived, they must be dead by now. Beehives are brought in from all over the country for a few weeks to pollinate the trees. Farmers abstain from using pesticides during that time and can resume this activity after the honey bees are gone. I won’t even attempt to discuss here how stressful and unnatural this system is for the honey bees.

      What would happen if all honey bees were gone? The entire monoculture practice would have to change. Hedgerows would be interspersed among the almond tree fields. Ground cover would have to include some flowers and some healthy nesting soil. Pesticides would have to be eliminated or, at least, drastically reduced in order to protect the wild pollinators.

      Amazingly, a few stubborn little natives manage to survive in some orchards. Researchers have gathered data showing that, in some cases, native pollinators contribute as much or even more than honey bees. Please read the article I linked to, “Agroforestry: Sustaining Native Bee Habitat for Crop Pollination.” I am adding three more references in answer to your questions; see the links under Additional Readings: “Native Bees, Native Plants and Crop Pollination in California,” “Native bees are better pollinators, more plentiful than honeybees, finds entomologist,” (Cornell University), and “Organic Farming for Bees. Conservation of Native Crop Pollinators in Organic Farming Systems” (Xerces Society).

      Resorting to native pollinators is far from the easy way out. The Pollinator Partnership, the Xerces Society and several universities are engaged in an arduous task to prevent a pollinator crisis if we continue relying on a single pollinator and on unsustainable farming practices.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Beginners Guide to Pollinators

  8. says

    We are of one mind, Beatriz! I so appreciate finding others who share the same concerns. I have coincidentally written something similar on this very topic recently. :)

    I love how you refer to the honeybee as a “Jack-of-all-trades.” The full expression is “Jack of all trades, but master of none.” I think this perfectly describes the honeybee! We have better pollinators!!
    Sarah M recently posted..America’s Bee Crisis: Part 3 – Native Bees Get It Done!

Trackbacks

  1. […] If all honey bees disappeared, it would be catastrophic for agriculture, as we know it, and we would certainly suffer grievously, but we would survive. Nevertheless, over time, other pollinators could, and would, take over all the tasks that the Jack-of-all-trades performs today. This would require profound changes in agriculture to meet these pollinators’ needs such as nesting habitat, diversity of crops, protection from pesticides and more. Fortunately, several groups of pollination experts are already exploring this issue and coming with alternatives.  […]

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