When it comes to honeybees, everybody has an opinion (if not two). Everybody thinks differently. Everybody has a perspective. But the one common thing that we all agree on, is that honeybees are in trouble. Serious trouble. And they’re not going down alone; they’re taking us with them Samson-style.
There is a long, invisible, thin (but sturdy) thread that connects the honeybees and us. Connects our present; connects our future; and connects our fate. You see a lot of what we consume today is dependent on honeybees. Some pin that number at 30% of all global consumption, others argue it’s only in the teen percentages. Regardless of the stat, we all agree it is strategic. Luckily for us air-breathers, food supply is a very fragmented and complimentary landscape. If suddenly tomorrow rice will disappear from planet earth, we will survive. If sugar disappears, we will prevail. Even if meat evaporates from our pale blue dot, we’ll still make it (my quasi-Argentinian wife would beg to differ, but that’s for another post).
This abundant food diversity, this highly-fragmented food supply, maintains food supply risks at a tactical level. But here’s a shocker for you: when you go down the food chain, things start to consolidate, almost amalgamate. You see, a threat to honeybees is one of those strategic threats to our global food supply. Honeybees pollinate many of our crops, that allow for many of the diverse items we grow (and consume), globally. Bees hold the Guinness world record for being the most diverse pollinators: they effectively pollinate ~90% of our crops. There are other pollinators too; in fact there are tens of thousands of different pollinators worldwide. However, none pollinate such a wide variety and diverse crops (not even close), and none are commercially managed by humans. We have been growing and managing honeybees for thousands of years; some say even longer.
Let me take a quick pause here and talk a little about myself. You see I’m a technical guy; I’m a numbers guy; I’m a math guy. I love stats; it’s my safe place whenever I loose sight of the light. And the stats tell a very different story. If you look at the total amount of honeybees in the world, it has not drastically changed in the last 10, 30, 50 years. The proxy for that metric are hives; and total number of hives is constant, if not growing, over time. And this is somewhat paradoxical with the first lines of this column (Physics has the Fermi paradox, Math has Girard’s paradox, why wouldn’t bees have one of their own?). Let me lay it out for you: we all know that bees are at risk, whereas the stats tell a completely opposite story. What gives, bees? well, if this was a real paradox we’d be in serious trouble. Fortunately for us it is not. Bees are keeping their population numbers because we, humans, are artificially keeping it this way. By way of example, take a terminally-ill person. Assume that we can significantly extend their lives with life-support machinery. If you look at their stats, they look steady. They look alive. If you don’t see the full picture, just look at their graph, you might not even know they are on life support. But guess what: if we pull the plug, it ends quickly.
Honeybees are on life-support. We, the “machine” are keeping them alive. Artificially. It wasn’t always the case; and it is only getting worse. From thousands of years ago, until about 30 years ago, bees could maintain healthy populations on their own. Until about 20 years ago, they saw a drop of about 10% of their global population every year. Until about 10 years ago, they saw a drop of about 20% of their global population. Today, we are experiencing an average of about a 30% drop of their global populations, every year. And not from natural causes. Humans artificially create more bees, more colonies, more hives. But guess what, we’re right at the cusp of the 10-year cycle and we’re due for another jump of their yearly drop. At some point, we won’t be able to maintain their populations artificially. And that’s when the downward slope begins; and you know what they say about slopes.