Biology,  Q & A

What Would Happen If All the Bees Died?

There are about 20,000 species of bees in the world, and they are probably the most important insect pollinators. The thousands of bee species have unique flight patterns and floral preferences, and many have coevolved with flowers in such a way that their body sizes and behaviors almost perfectly complement the flowers they pollinate. Sadly, bees of all types are in decline worldwide, as are many other insects. The familiar honeybee has suffered greatly from colony collapse disorder, in which hives suddenly lose their adult members. Populations of bumblebees and other solitary bees have steeply declined in many places, largely because of insecticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, and global warming. Some species, such as the rusty patched bumblebee, are even listed as endangered species.

If all of the world’s bees died off, there would be major rippling effects throughout ecosystems. A number of plants, such as many of the bee orchids, are pollinated exclusively by specific bees, and they would die off without human intervention. This would alter the composition of their habitats and affect the food webs they are part of and would likely trigger additional extinctions or declines of dependent organisms. Other plants may utilize a variety of pollinators, but many are most successfully pollinated by bees. Without bees, they would set fewer seeds and would have lower reproductive success. This too would alter ecosystems. Beyond plants, many animals, such as the beautiful bee-eater birds, would lose their prey in the event of a die-off, and this would also impact natural systems and food webs.

In terms of agriculture, the loss of bees would dramatically alter human food systems but would not likely lead to famine. The majority of human calories still come from cereal grains, which are wind-pollinated and are therefore unaffected by bee populations. Many fruits and vegetables, however, are insect-pollinated and could not be grown at such a large scale, or so cheaply, without bees. Blueberries and cherries, for example, rely on honeybees for up to 90 percent of their pollination. Although hand-pollination is a possibility for most fruit and vegetable crops, it is incredibly labor-intensive and expensive. Tiny robotic pollinator drones have been developed in Japan but remain prohibitively expensive for entire orchards or fields of time-sensitive flowers. Without bees, the availability and diversity of fresh produce would decline substantially, and human nutrition would likely suffer. Crops that would not be cost-effective to hand- or robot-pollinate would likely be lost or persist only with the dedication of human hobbyists.

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