The scientific community has previously underestimated, or, at a minimum, failed to document the interconnectedness of plant and pollinator systems. Because we have traditionally undervalued these relationships, agricultural interventions have long had unintended consequences on processes we took for granted, like pollination.
Pollination is important to the plant lifecycle. Pollination ensures that crops are able to reproduce, providing us with the edible parts of the plant: fruit, roots, leaves, etc. When pollination is not successful, plant yields drop. If pollination fell to zero, crop yields could also fall to zero (but how crops would evolve over time is a matter of predictive analytics and unknown). In the short term, we have seen situations where laborers have had to intervene and help the pollination process along, in order to preserve crop yields as a result of declining pollinator populations.
Using human labor to pollinate plants is inefficient to say the least. While it is a stop gap that may help preserve some crop yields, it does not constitute a sustainable replacement for the wildlife that is specifically evolved to pollinate various plants. Equally, the scientific community are finding very specific relationships between plants and animals that will be hard to replicate with even the most sophisticated technologies.
What is happening to bee populations?
Bee populations, and indeed the populations of all types of pollinators, including butterflies, birds and other insects, are declining worldwide, according to scientific consensus. According to the FAO:
“Bees and other pollinators are declining in abundance in many parts of the world largely due to intensive farming practices, mono-cropping, excessive use of agricultural chemicals and higher temperatures associated with climate change, affecting not only crop yields but also nutrition.”
This conclusion, that pollinator populations are declining, is abundant in the headlines, but the underlying data on which it is based is sparse and local. According to a recent Assessment report on Pollinators, Pollination, and Food Production by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES):
“Wild pollinators have declined in occurrence and diversity (and abundance for certain species) at local and regional scales in North West Europe and North America. Although a lack of wild pollinator data (species identity, distribution and abundance) for Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania preclude any general statement on their regional status, local declines have been recorded. Long-term international or national monitoring of both pollinators and pollination is urgently required to provide information on status and trends for most species and most parts of the world.”
So, from what I can tell, the scientific community is confident that global pollinator populations are declining, because nearly all of the local studies being carried out show declines in wild populations. For example, in the UK, a third of wild bees and hoverflies populations are in decline. The UK is monitoring 216 species of bee, and found that populations declined in 70% of these from 1980-2010. A flying biomass study carried out in Germany found that flying insects declined by 76-82% (depending on the season) between 1989 and 2016. 9% of bee and butterfly species in Europe are currently threatened, and populations are declining in 37% of bee species that are currently monitored. Unmonitored species make up 57% of bee species, so that 37% figure is only representing less than half of bee species overall.
There is general consensus that populations of all pollinators are falling overall worldwide, and emerging research is reinforcing these conclusions. However, time series data (data points that can track trends over time) on bee populations globally are not available. So, we cannot say with much confidence by how much wild bee populations are changing. What we can say is that more scientific study is required in this area. The most widely available data come from monitoring of cultivated bees only, giving very little insight into how wild bee populations are doing.
Data from FAO’s statistical database, FAOSTAT, demonstrate that the number of managed western honey-bee hives has been increasing globally over the last several decades. In 1961, countries reported fewer than 50 million hives. In 2016, they reported more than 90.5 million hives, producing nearly 1.8 million tonnes of honey annually. IPBES (2016a), however, notes that, despite the overall upward trends globally, important seasonal colony losses are known to occur in some European countries and in North America (data for other regions of the world are largely lacking). For example, in the US, there have been serious colony losses as a result of pests and pathogens in addition to habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Responders to this FAO report stated unequivocally that pollinator populations are declining in grassland based livestock farming systems. However, populations of pollinators are stable or showing mixed results across other farming systems.
In summary, there is evidence that the diversity of bee species is declining, and overall bee populations are showing mixed results: some populations are increasing; some are declining; and some are stable. Despite losing many types of bees, some of the species that remain are thriving, for example. And if they are growing by a larger volume than the species have lost, then overall populations could be rising in some geographic regions. So, for that reason, when activists call out for action, they typically refer to the figures related to species loss, rather than population changes.
Globally, the scientific community accepts that pollinator populations are declining at an alarming rate. The challenge with bees is that there is a mix of wild and domesticated bees, and since domesticated bees have economic value (honey and pollination services to intensive agriculture systems), they are faring pretty well across the globe. So, this takes us back to our question: is eating honey good for the environment? Overall, it is hard to say, but what we can say with relative confidence is that eating responsibly farmed honey does have a positive impact on cultivated bee populations.
Why do we need bees and other pollinators?
Overall, pollinators support between $235 and $577 billion of annual food production globally. Of the more than 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of food supplies for 146 countries, over 70% are pollinated by bees, and several others are pollinated by thrips, wasps, flies, beetles, moths and other insects. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4 000 vegetable species have their life assured thanks to the pollination of the bees.
That being said, while nearly 75% of our crops depend on pollinators to some extent, only 35% of global crop production does. That is because many of our staple foods (the ones of which we eat a lot – like cereals) are not dependent on pollinators at all. They are wind-pollinated.
Crop yields also have a positive relationship with diverse and robust pollinator populations, meaning that natural pollinators help improve crop yields, even when they are not directly involved in the actual pollination. According to the FAO, “higher pollinator density and higher species diversity of pollinator visits to flowers have been found to be associated with higher crop yields”.
It is common for farmers in intensive farming practice to rent honeybees in order to have a large enough population of pollinators to pollinate large crop acreages, and to offset the loss of nearby natural habitats of pollinators that exist in traditional, ecological farming practices – like hedgerows.
So, while we may not see a widespread food shortage as a result of pollinator decline, many popular food crops depend on pollinators, like bees, and will suffer reduced yields as pollinator populations continue to decline. According to our world in data, crop production would decline by around 5% in higher income countries, and by about 8% in lower/middle income countries if pollinator insects vanish.
If we do not revive the populations of our pollinators, we will have to rely more and more on other methods of pollinating the crops that end up as food on our tables. Hand pollination is already seen across 20 crops, including vanilla, passion fruit, date palm, oil palm, cocoa, and specific species of apples. Hand pollination can reduce financial losses associated with a lack of natural pollinators, but it is certainly not the most efficient way to cultivate these crops. In 2020, a comprehensive study from Rutgers University stated that crop yields for apples, cherries and blueberries in the United States are already being impacted by reductions in available pollinators.
Overall, while the percentage (5-8%) of crop production impacted may not be that high in percentage terms, it represents a large volume of some of the most nutrient rich foods we consume. It is worth remembering that other impacts of pollinator loss are significant – reduced biodiversity will likely kick off negative feedback loops in the ecosystems that depend on them, causing a number of as yet unrealized consequences.