«If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.»
Probably not Albert Einstein
Even though this (probable) misquote is an exaggeration, it contains some real wisdom. However, the failure of the remark is that it presents the extinction of bees as a zero-sum game. Either they exist and we reap the benefits of their labours, or they have gone extinct, and our fate is sealed. The reality is much more gradual and nuanced. And we are already experiencing it.
When the reproductive capacity of a plant is constrained by a lack of pollination, it is called pollination limitation. There are various reasons for this such as habitat fragmentation, pesticide use, invasive species and climate change. But as these causal incidents often manifest in the loss of animal pollinators, they are the most vulnerable link in this reproductive cycle. To worsen matters, biotic, or ‘animal’ pollination is the most frequently occurring method of pollination in the natural world.
The gradual loss of pollinator populations is not a new thing. The ‘windshield phenomenon’ is an anecdotal observation that first appeared in the late 1990’s, when people noticed they were cleaning fewer and fewer insects from their windscreens. In 1997, a Danish team set out to investigate this observation by recording the number of dead insects found on car windshields on a stretch of highway. The study ended in 2017, and accounting for factors like the time of day, date, temperature, and wind velocity, it revealed an 80% decrease in insect numbers over the 20-year period. A corresponding study carried out within the same region employed sweep nets and adhesive surfaces, which exhibited a correlation with the decline in insect fatalities. Similar studies have also been conducted in the UK, with comparable results.
overall increase in yield would be possible, if plants received sufficient pollination.
The affect that pollination limitation has on production cycles is not well understood, though the loss of bees and other important pollinators is already resulting in clear production deficits. A meta-analysis was conducted to investigate how much agricultural output is being limited by a lack of adequate pollination around the globe. The research task looked at 52 published studies across various countries and involved 30 different crops. The studies compared the yield of crops that had flowers supplemented with pollen (to represent the optimal pollination scenario) and those that were open-pollinated (representing the state of natural pollination). The results indicated a significant increase in yield, approximately 34%, when plants received pollen supplementation, highlighting a huge productive deficit.
It is perhaps due to the consistent cost of pollinated crops for consumers, that more has not been done to understand or ease pollination limitation. If consumers have not yet felt the true burden of this, it is because it has fallen on producers such as farmers and beekeepers, which cannot be sustainable for too long.