Are honeybees really that important?

honeybee pollination

Pollinators are important for the production of ~75% of the world’s leading crops, but honeybees are not the only insects responsible for providing these services.

The vanilla orchid, for example, can only be pollinated by a specific type of solitary bee, while Theobroma cacoa – the source of chocolate – is only pollinated by a tiny fly. The flowers of papaya are pollinated by nocturnal sphinx moths, and both bumblebees and solitary bees are important for the production of a variety of other fruits and vegetables – squash and melons, tomatoes, blueberries, peppers, almonds, passion fruit, and brazil nuts, just to name a few.

If honeybees disappeared, food production would certainly suffer, but not all hope would be lost. Because the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is native to Europe and North Africa, many of the plant species that we now use as food crops did not evolve to depend on honeybees.

Although we still have much to learn about managing other types of bees, it is likely that, at least for some crops, alternative pollinators would be suitable replacements or even superior to honeybees. There are over 30,000 species of bees, with about 4,000 native to the United States alone, and a few species have already shown the potential to be 100 times as effective as honeybees.

But what would happen if we lost ALL pollinators?

Believe it or not, most of our food calories come from plants that don’t require animal pollination. Cereal crops like corn, wheat, and rice are wind pollinated. And many other crops come from vegetative plant parts like roots, stems, or leaves, which don’t require pollination. Potatoes, carrots, beets, celery, broccoli, spinach, and cabbage are some common examples.

There are a few types of crops that would be particularly sensitive to pollinator extinction. These plants are typically those that can’t self-pollinate or require specific pollinators. Fruits like tomato, avocado, peach, coconut, mango, durian, and some vegetables fall into this category.

However, the largest effects of pollinator loss could be reflected in the production of coffee and chocolate. So there may be a reason to panic after all!

An earlier version of this post was originally featured on one of my older blogs.

2 comments

    1. Very true Mina! Pollination is still required to produce seeds for crops, even when we only eat the vegetative parts. But honeybees aren’t the only pollinators that can do that for us.

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