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).

Related article:  Global consensus finds neonicotinoids not driving honeybee health problems—Why is Europe so determined to ban them?

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.

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

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

          • 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?”

          • Right, but those figures are ACTIVELY increasing Griffin. Maybe we should start listening to the professional beekeepers (like me) that do this for a living full time and talk to other FULL TIME beekeepers rather than just skimming and quote minning (like most of the authors of these articles do).

          • You’re a beekeeper where?

            I’m a beekeeper in New Mexico, a certified beekeeper with the state organization.

            What is this mass die-off you speak of?
            How did you determine that that is not a problem of varroa mites, which are increasingly resistant to miticides?

            How have you decided it’s something else (and what does that have to do with the fact that honeybees do NOT pollinate “1 in 3 bites” of our food?)

          • How many hives do you run?

            If you don’t know about the massive fluctuations in bee population in North America alone, then you aren’t much of a “beekeeper” buddy lol. It either means you are completely out to lunch on the issue, or you haven’t discussed with ANY other beekeepers at any meetings or read any articles from experts within our field, scientific or practical.

            Did I say I had decided it wasn’t “something else”? I was speaking to the fact that what the person stated I was responded to was OBJECTIVELY false.

            You ignoring reality does not in fact make your ignorance less ridiculous.

          • Also, the fact that varroa mites are NOT effecting uniformly, would directly infer that they aren’t inherently the biggest issue.

            And what the hell does that have to do with what I even stated? You’re now arguing cause rather than the fact that bees ARE dying off in increased and drastic numbers. lol let me guess, you don’t run many hives and/or work DIRECTLY as a government “beekeeper” (i.e. not much beekeeping done at all).

    • They change the amount of actual food to dollars and our counting the foods that make America one of the sickest industrialized nations in the world. Fat, ugly, sick comes from the big agro, responsible for killing bees. Sick of shit like this.

    • Honeybees are invasives in North America. They came over with the colonizers (sometimes as recently as the late 1800s!) and push native pollinators out.
      They aren’t even THAT good at pollinating – many natives are more efficient and since they don’t overwinter do not hoard as much of the pollen for themselves. Plants in the family that includes tomatoes and potatoes CAN’T be pollinated by honeybees – their pollen is deep inside and only a large bee (such as a native bumble bee) can buzz pollinate them.

      Did you even read the article?

    • Over 90% of human nutrition come from crops that need NO BEES AT ALL, much less honeybees.

      These include all grains, which don’t even flower and are wind-pollinated. They comprise something like 40% of food energy alone.
      And root vegetables, the next largest group, which are propagated without flowers.
      Plus self-pollinated crops, like legumes (soybeans) and solanum (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant).
      And then there are the many that are propagated by cuttings, like the parthenogenic plantains.
      Let’s not forget that ALL HYBRID CROPS are human-pollinated. Human beings carefully cross two different plants by hand.

      So no, if anything saying honeybees are responsible for 7% is an exaggeration, the real number is probably smaller. Even much of that 7%, like nuts, tree fruit, kiwifruit and squash are all better pollinated by specialized pollinators like the blue orchard bee or squash bee.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

      • 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.

        • Brian, as a beekeeper myself, GMOs aren’t the sole issue here, so stop pretending like they are. Do we need to monitor GMOs? Of course. I’m more worried about the potential for appreciated levels of chemicals in the honey bee than anything when it comes to coated seed and pesticides.

        • It’s actually not lol. Mass food production is NOT possible without the use of GMOs. Do people not understand what GMOs actually are? Not ALL GMOs are bad people. Everything you, EVERYTHING, is a GMO. EVERYTHING. Even if you grow it yourself from seeds you collect from the middle of nowhere, it is STILL a GMO.

          • Ah, so you are just a troll. Figured as much. Nobody can be as stupid as you put on without being a troll.

          • GMO means Genetically Manipulated Organism. This is not generally recognized, but it’s true. GMO’s are decades old, only. Sure, plants have long been selected, and even hybridized. But GMO in fact only applies to geneticaly manipulated plants.

          • “with a long-held and deep interests in ecology, spirituality and humanity” says all I need to know about the validity of any retorts or “research” you’ve done or can provide to back said opinion.

    • 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)

      • 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?

        • You MIGHT want to do a pinch more research into this. Everything you eat is genetically modified.
          You didn’t think that organically grown seedless watermelon happened NATURALLY, did you??

          To create the sweet & seedless fruits that consumers demand, seeds are shot with radiation to manipulate and scramble their DNA. That messes with their ability to reproduce, and you can get a big, fat, juicy, fruit with little to no seeds.

          Wether or not that seed is later grown in an organic farm and sold at Whole Foods or a conventional farm and sold at Walmart has nothing to do with whether or not its genetic code was screwed with.

    • Hahaha so true. This article is exactly like Exxon hiring a “scientist” to “prove” that humans cant affect green house gasses by burning 7 billion barrels of oil a day. Idiots.

    • Is there anything from the article you can discredit…?

      You can recognize the hyperbole in social media while simultaneously wanting to protect the environment.
      Our environment shouldn’t be protected because the facts are less exciting than the slogans; it should be protected because it should be protected.
      There’s no reason to NOT learn the facts though, even though they are a little messier and more complex.

  7. http://pollinator.com/self_pollinating_tomato.htm

    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.”

  8. some common logical fallacies are in play in many of the comments.
    –unconscious irrational conflating emotional concern for life with concern for species with concern for with promoting status-quo as “good” and with impact on human quality of life and with specific food crop grower financial impacts.

    These areas of focus are ALL completely different yet the eco-warriors will make vague biased opinion lacking cold clear objectivism and open-mindedness of the realities of propaganda, memes, trends, context, existing alternatives and awareness of their own logical failings.

    –There is also the common fallacy of using broad ranges to infer total impact and using any impact to mean “BAD”.
    –There is also a lack of context with foods that IN FACT do NOT REQUIRE bees.

  9. “Wind Pollination. When pollen is transported by wind, this is called anemophily. Many of the world’s most important crop plants are wind-pollinated. These include wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, and oats.”

    “The most essential staple food crops on the planet, like corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and sorghum, need no insect help at all; they are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating.”

  10. Could we get a correction to this article, please?
    Tomatoes are ABSOLUTELY pollinated by bees. Not by honeybees though!
    Tomatoes (and others in the Solanaceae family – eggplants, chili peppers, potatoes) keep their pollen deep inside an anther and it must be shaken out. Only a large bee such as a bumble bee is capable of this buzz pollination.
    Bumble bees pollinate tomatoes.

    • That is entirely false. Bumblebees CAN help pollinate them, but so can a brisk breeze, or even a human being employed to walk around gently shaking the plants. The many greenhouses that grow tomatoes use those two solutions.

  11. Some self pollinating crops like tomatoes still rely on insect (bumblebee) pollination for seed set and genetic diversity / ability to adapt to environmental changes. Also, many crops have increased yields when insect-pollinated vs self-pollinated only. And yes, many of our staple foods, rice wheat etc, don’t need insects as they’re wind pollinated. But most of our healthiest foods, fruit and veg, do rely on or at least benefit from insect pollination

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