Pollinator myth: Are bees responsible for one third of global food, heightening crisis? More like 7%

| August 12, 2015

Will the planet starve if bees disappear? Aren’t bees responsible for a significant chunk of the world’s food supply and nutrition, from one third to as much as 90 percent, depending on what advocacy group is making the claim? You hear such assertions invoked by advocacy groups, reported as truth by journalists and cited by politicians as accepted wisdom whenever the subject of pollinators comes up.

“Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees,” writes Greenpeace USA on its ‘save the bees’ fundraising campaign that fingers pesticides as the primary cause of the “bee crisis.”

FOX News, like many in the media, circulated the narrative far and wide. Citing the National Resources Defense Fund, which passed along the comment as accepted wisdom, “one of every three bites of food Americans consume comes from a plant visited by bees or other pollinators.

Such sweeping claims often make it, fully intact, into the government record. At a May 13 meeting of a House Agriculture subcommittee, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top pesticide regulator, Jim Jones said, “As you well know, pollinators are responsible for nearly one in every three bites of food you eat. In addition, they contribute nearly $15 billion to the nation’s economy.”

But how true are these claim? Where did this accepted wisdom originate? It’s certainly not found in the most independent and reliable data. Let’s crunch the numbers.

According to USDA’s most recent census of agriculture, the market value of America’s total food supply in 2012 was $394 billion. If pollinators were responsible for one-third of that, they’d be contributing $131 billion to the economy, not the actual figure, which is $15 billion, as the EPA’s Jones noted on the Hill.

What’s going on? Why the huge discrepancy — a factor of almost nine.

The source of the myth is the 1976 Pollination Handbook, which wrote in its summary, “one-third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, upon insect-pollinated plants.” The report noted concerns about the bee pollination, a trend already in place for decades and with no link to today’s bogeyman, neonicotinoids, which were not introduced until the 1990s — after which the global bee population began its gradual recovery.

Here are the facts about crops and bees:

Sixty percent of America’s crops can grow just fine without bees. Wheat, corn and rice are wind-pollinated. Lettuce, beans and tomatoes are self-pollinated. The 12 crops that worldwide furnish nearly 90 percent of the world’s food — rice, wheat, maize (corn), sorghums, millets, rye, and barley, and potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassavas or maniocs, bananas and coconuts — are wind pollinated, self-pollinated or are propagated asexually or develop without the need for fertilization (parthenocarpically).

It’s true that about 35 percent of America’s crops — about a third — rely to some extent on bees. Sometimes the bees are essential. In other cases, they’re nice to have around, but their absence does not present a crisis. A 2007 study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society quantified the importance of bees on a crop-to-crop basis.

We found that pollinators are essential for 13 crops, production is highly pollinator dependent for 30, moderately for 27, slightly for 21, unimportant for 7, and is of unknown significance for the remaining 9.

So crops like strawberries, sunflower and chestnuts are classified as having a “moderate” yield boost from bee pollination. That means they see a 10 to 40 percent addition to production from bees.

The only way you can say bees “are responsible” for a third of our food supply is by giving bees 100 percent credit for the value of each and every crop over which a bee might hover when, in reality, bees play a minor role in 28 crops.

The fact that the economic benefit of bees adds up to $15 billion acknowledges this reality The figure comes from a 2000 Cornell University study by Roger Morse and Nicholas Calderone that puts a dollar value on the honeybee’s contribution to agriculture. The researchers arrived at their total by taking, for example, 100 percent of the value of the almond crop and attributing it to the honeybee on the theory that, without the bee, there’d be no almonds. They then assign a proportional value for the other crops where bees are less essential. For example, bees are responsible for giving strawberries a 20 percent boost in yield, so they put 20 percent of the value of the strawberry crop in the bee value column. And so on.

All of those suitably proportioned values added up to less than $15 billion using data from 1996 to 1998. According to the USDA’s census of agriculture, the market value of our food supply then was $197 billion, which means bees would account for about 7.4 percent of agriculture’s value. To be sure, that’s a substantial amount, but it’s hardly one third.

The market has one way of assigning a value to bee pollinators, and that’s the price paid for pollination services. According to USDA, that value was $656 million in 2012. That’s no small amount, but it’s far from the $131 billion implied in the factoids circulating about bees.

NOTE: This article consolidates a number of previous articles written by various authors for the GLP and is part of the GLP's ongoing series on Birds & Bees: Real Facts About Pollinators.

  • Matt Shardlow

    This article is confusing and treats honeybees, bees and pollinators as exchangable terms, they are not the same thing.
    Bold claim that global population of bees is gradually recovering seems at odds to evidence relating to bumblebees and solitary bees most bees – continuing declines in many countries.
    Comparing apples and pears, saying 1 in 3 mouthfuls of food come directly or indirectly from pollinated plants is not the same as a reductive assessment of US crop value. How many mouthful of your daily intake are coffee or fruit juice? How much is imported into the USA? How do you treat meat and dairy products partly the product of digested insect pollinated plants?
    Finally, given that the estimated direct crop value attributed to pollination in the UK is £630 million, your $figure looks really low; are you sure it is fully up to date?

    • Skinnydipper

      As the article states from the 1976 Pollination Handbook, “one-third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, upon insect-pollinated plants.” That does not equate to bee-pollinated crops. Perhaps you should re-read the article if you find it confusing.

  • Bogus article! It is not easy to understand where you people are coming from. According to the study mentioned from The Royal Society, pollinators are at least moderately important in 70 crops, including 43 crops that are at least highly dependant on them, whereas only 28 crops use them only slightly or not at all. In other words, more than ⅔ of crops that they know about, in that study, rely totally, largely, or significantly on pollinators–presumably often bees.

    And yet you try to belittle the importance of this problem– In spite of the fact that the USDA, on May 23, 2015, reported that Total annual losses ( of honey bee colonies) were 42.1 percent for April 2014 through April 2015. The new figure is up from 34.2 percent for 2013-2014. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2015/150513.htm

    It seems you folks should have your heads examined about what is important, biologically.

    What is important, to you?

    • Elena Genuos

      And yet the number of honey bees is increasing.

      • So you think it is no problem, the massive bee die-off? Head in the sand!

        • Ray Morin

          show me the bees , or are you just taking someones word for it they died . like most do .

          • Show you the dead bees?

          • Griffin Moores

            Those are over-winter losses.

            “It is completely normal for beekeepers to lose a percentage of their hives every year, especially in the winter time, due to weather, disease or the exhaustion of stored food supplies.”

            See this article and scroll down to: “What about overwinter and summer losses?”

  • Tell beekeepers that.

  • Daren Hess

    If bees only added only 10% to the production of a crop, it could be that you could give 100% credit to the bees if that 10% increase means that the farmer actually makes a profit and stays in business. I’m betting this article was not written by a farmer nor economist.

  • Daren Hess

    In economics sometimes 20% equals 100% If bees are responsible for 20% of any given crop, that 20% is the difference between that farmer staying in business and producing food, vs. abandoning the farm, going into town and writing for a science website.

  • captainhurt

    are bees TOO BIG TOO FAIL? :-P
    Looking at the lists, I do NOT eat ANY of the foods where bees are essential, so I would say….meh.

    I would say meh, except that I hate stinging insects, biting insects, home-invasive insects, and ESPECIALLY hate parasitic insects. In general, i do NOT like insects.

    Too bad for the bees, but insects are at best, low on my priority list and mostly either a severe irritant or a blatant enemy of mammals, including humans.

  • Brian

    So we don’t need bees. really? So pesticides and GMO are fine? I bet you think there are lots of species we don’t need. All the trucking bees around the USA, what a waste of time.

    You folks are so transparent PR.

    • Elena Genuos

      GMO has nothing to do with it. The problem is not pesticides in general either. Mass food production is also currently not possible without pesticides.

      • Brian

        Why do pro GMO people continue to pretend that GMO is not being used primarily to allow the greater use of pesticides? do they think we haven’t heard it before?

        We don’t need pesticides, or at least not the deadly ones chemical farming uses. some much safer subset of organics pesticides will do, ad achiever good yields, better in droughts, and not kill the environment and the soil. and us.

      • GAZOO

        just the opposite is true.

    • Someone

      GMOs are fine anyway. Carrots are GMOs, they came from the poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace. The only reason people see GMOs as bad is because they made soybeans immune to a certain pesticide that kills everything. The GMO isn’t bad, it is the pesticide that kills everything. To conclude, Genetically Modified Organisms are fine, as they are our main agricultural technology, but deadly pesticides that kill everything but a certain plant are, well, the danger. (If you do not believe me, search it up, and make sure the site is RELIABLE. Don’t go to a website with no sources and only opinions)

      • Brian

        selective breeding is not GMO. Changing the DNA of life is bad, because big money cuts corner till thing breaks and people die. Or do you believe big money loves us an only wants us to be happy?

  • f2018

    they are still way more valuable than the useless violent parasitic 3rd world invaders

  • Jon Pinder

    No source for the ‘after which global bee population began its gradual recovery’

  • BoBo Jones

    I grow food, i grow food in a greenhouse an out. I have bees everyday in my yard, where is this collapse? Is this more mass fear tactics?

    • Verity Dunton

      I have trees, I have trees in my city. I have had trees standing for years in my back garden, where is this deforestation? Is this more mass fear tactics?


    This website couldn’t be a more blatant front for the psychopathic corporate complex.

  • circinspect

    Which pesticide company does the author work for?

  • Ferretrox

    This is the truth!

  • J


    read your article, then read this. “self-pollinating and the tomato growing mythology”

    “Electric vibrators were long used in greenhouses for tomatoes, but have been replaced, as bumblebees are found to be far more efficient. Using an artist brush with tomatoes is very inefficient because the pollen is not on the surface.

    Yup, tomatoes are self fertile, but self pollinating?…only when conditions are ideal…they often need help. “Self pollinating” is one of the myths of tomato growers.”

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