The honeybees and bumblebees many of us see every day may be the most recognized examples of their kind, but there are actually more than 20,000 species of bees known to science.Four thousand species of bees are native to the United States alone, but many people are unaware of the degree to which bees help the environment around us. Indeed, bees are crucial to our ecosystem, and to our very quality of life.
Many species of bees are thriving — and many are quickly vanishing. Which of the threats facing bees is posing the greatest risk is hotly debated; from climate change to air pollution, intensive agriculture, habitat loss and more. But what we do know for sure is that many bee populations are indeed being pushed to the brink. Researchers concluded that between 2016 and 2015, 25 percent fewer species of bees were seen than before 1990.
What is most certain is the importance of these pollinators. “Bees are among the hardest working creatures on the planet,” writes the Food and Agriculture Administration of the United Nations. By “ensuring pollination,” these insects facilitate the “reproduction of many cultivated and wild plants, which is crucial for food production, human livelihoods and biodiversity.”
Why Are Bees Crucial to the Environment?
As pollinators, bees play an essential role in helping many plants to reproduce — not only food crops, but wild flora, too.
Plants, in turn, benefit our environment and allow humans and non-human animals to survive. Plants store carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, release oxygen, purify water, help to boost soil fertility and prevent soil erosion.
How Do Bees Help the Environment?
Bees help the environment by benefiting plants and, therefore, the humans and wildlife that depend on them.
While some bee populations are not threatened, Rutgers scientists found in 2022 that it is not just an “abundance” of bees that matters to plant biodiversity, but the diversity of bee species themselves. The same plants were predominantly pollinated by different species throughout the year, the researchers concluded.
One of the reasons bees are so important in the lives of humans is because they pollinate crops. One-third of the world’s crop production depends on pollinators. Therefore, bees facilitate the growth of some of the food we eat.
Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from a plant’s anther (male) to its stigma (female), which allows for fertilization and seed growth. Bees consume pollen as an important source of protein, but they also spread pollen, which sticks to the hairs on their bodies, from plant to plant.
Not all crops must rely on pollinators. However, most plants — 75 percent — are at least partially reliant on them. Others, including melon and cocoa beans, are completely dependent. As Our World in Data states, a “ world without pollinators would mean a world without chocolate.”
Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of U.S. crops every year, according to the USDA. This includes over 130 varieties of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Some researchers believe that bees are responsible for one third of every bite of food we consume globally.
Wild Plant Growth
Like their crucial role in the growth of food crops, bees facilitate the success of wild plants through the process of pollination. According to the United States Geological Survey, 75 percent of North American plant species require insects, mostly bees, to transfer pollen from one plant to another.
Globally, over 80 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators.
As pollinators, bees play a vital role in ensuring the growth of plants that serve several purposes in wild habitats. Many wild species rely on plants pollinated by bees for sources of food, nesting and shelter.
Plants themselves are important parts of any habitat. Plants benefit soil fertility and provide variety in the food available to wildlife. By pollinating plants, bees help to protect a diverse presence of flora.
When it comes to species of animals and plants alike, biodiversity is considered a top indicator of an ecosystem’s health.
What Is the Economic Importance of Bees?
Pollinators account for an added $18 billion in U.S. crop revenue annually, and honeybees are the nation’s “primary commercial pollinator,” according to the USDA. Products made using bees, including honey and wax, generate another $700 million in profits each year.
Bees and other pollinators contribute $217 billion to the global economy each year.
What Are the Threats to Bee Populations?
Although there is debate as to which human threats plague bee populations most severely, the fact is that a variety of problems are facing these important insects.
Our changing climate presents dangers for bees in the form of rising temperatures, wildfires, and both drought and extreme rainfall. Research has shown that while smaller bees may be better able to resist climate impacts, larger species like bumblebees are facing decline.
Diseases can also threaten bees, and their dangers may be compounded by human activity. The World Organization for Animal Health notes that the “ conjunction of infections linked to viruses, bacteria and parasites with chemical factors such as insecticides can worsen the health situation of hives.”
Pesticide use poses another problem, as they can make plants and their pollen toxic to bees. In 2019, researchers found that the use of neonicotinoid pesticides caused U.S. agriculture to become 48 times more toxic to bees and other insects over 25 years. And the risk may be greater than we realize: a 2021 study determined that the impact of pesticides on bee populations has likely been underestimated.
The habitats pollinators need in order to survive “are shrinking,” warns the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Vegetation on which bees rely is increasingly being replaced by invasive plants and gardens, roads and more. Some of the crops being planted on land important to bees include corn and soybeans, widely used by animal agriculture in livestock feed.
Can We Live Without Bees?
Most researchers believe that humans would survive without the presence of bees. However, the disappearance of these insects could significantly alter certain aspects of our lives, including the way we eat.
What Would Happen If Bees Went Extinct?
If bees became extinct, their contribution to crop production would cease to exist right along with them. For this, both crop farmers and consumers would pay a steep price. Because one-third of food relies on bees, their extinction would mean that “crop yields would fall off dramatically,” reports the BBC. Eventually, other insects would fill the role of bees in pollination, “but in the short term you could expect the apple, orange, coffee, chocolate and rapeseed oil industries to collapse.”
The cost of some foods would likely skyrocket without the economic contribution of bees, resulting in high grocery prices – and exacerbating inequitable access to healthy produce.
The Bottom Line
Bee populations are facing many threats, and some are experiencing rapid decline. Because bees play a vital role in the production of much of the world’s food and in safeguarding our ecosystems, the protection of these insects benefits everyone.
Bees help the environment immensely, so it is all the more important that we help them.
There are ways that individuals can help bees from right in their backyard, according to the Bee Conservancy — from introducing native “bee-friendly” plants and trees, to eliminating the use of pesticides. Removing honey from one’s diet can also help bees, which rely on it themselves and can sometimes suffer for its production.
Sentient Media’s regularly updated Take Action page offers more ways to make a positive impact for animals and the planet.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.