Why bees are the most invaluable species

A public debate this week saw five scientists putting their case for saving one endangered species. Alison Benjamin on why the audience were right to save the bees

Bees gather around a honeycomb. Photograph: Rex Features

Bees were last night declared the most invaluable species on the planet at the annual Earthwatch debate. The audience heard from five eminent scientists who battled it out for fungi, bats, plankton, primates and bees.

While of course all species are invaluable for our ecosystem, the debate is designed to raise awareness about conservation by asking the audience to vote for just one of the species to receive a fictitious cheque for one trillion pounds to be spent on their conservation.

It comes us no surprise that the audience voted to save the bees. Who would want a world without honey, flowers, and third of everything we eat including chocolate and coffee? Not me.

Some 250,000 species of flowering plants depend on bees for pollination. Many of these are crucial to world agriculture. Bees increase the yields of around 90 crops, such as apples, blueberries and cucumbers by up to 30%, so many fruits and vegetables would become scarce and prohibitively expensive.

In addition, many of our medicines, both conventional and alternative remedies, come from flowering plants. And cotton is another essential product pollinated by the bee, so we could say goodbye to cheap T-shirts and jeans.

But it’s not just the human race that would suffer. Spare a thought for the poor birds and small mammals that feed off the berries and seeds that rely on bee pollination. They would die of hunger and in turn their predators – the omnivores or carnivores that continue the food chain would also starve. We could survive on wind-pollinated grains and fish, but there would be wars for control of dwindling food supplies. South America’s ancient Mayan civilization is thought to have died of starvation.

Although other insects and animals do pollinate – such as bats, butterflies and even wasps – none is designed like the bee as a pollinator machine.
There are 20,000 bee species around the world including solitary bees, bumblebees and honeybees. Many are monoletic – pollinate one plant – others like bumblebees and honeybees are polylectic. While bumblebees live in colonies of a few hundred, the sheer number of honeybees in a hive – up to 50,000 in the summer – and their ability to be managed, manipulated and transported by man makes them the most valuable pollinator.

Unfortunately all bees are already under serious Industrialised farming with its monocultures and pesticides has destroyed biodiversity and robbed the majority of bees of their habitat and food. While across the globe, the western honeybee – bred for its gentle nature and prolific honey making and pollination – is plagued by parasites and viruses, and also jeopardised by modern agricultural practices. More than a third of honeybees were wiped out in the US this year by Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease which is thought to be a combination of these assailants.

As Dr George McGavin, who was batting for the bees said: “Bee populations are in freefall. A world without bees would be totally catastrophic.”

The Earthwatch audience should be applauded for heading his call and voting to save them, and itself as well.

Alison Benjamin is co-author of A World without Bees

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