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Dying bees: What's the big deal? 

Amanda Coulson-Drasner
May 19, 2021

We are losing billions of bees every year to many complicated causes, including climate change, decreasing crop diversity and habitat loss. Why does it matter if bees are around?

Honey bees hovering in the air
Why we all should care about the world's bee populationsImage: Robin Loznak/Zumapress/picture alliance

"Save the bees!" — these calls to action usually come with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live."  

Problem is, there's no evidence Einstein ever said that. And that statement also simply isn't true. If all the bees died tomorrow, we would still be able to grow food — just maybe not the sort you'd like.

Why's that? 

It comes down to how different plants are pollinated. Wind-pollinated crops such as wheat, rice, and corn would continue to thrive, whereas you'd have to say goodbye to flowering crops, which includes most fruits and vegetables. 

That's because animals, so not just bees, but also hoverflies, bats, birds, beetles and more, are involved in the pollination of 90% of the world’s flowering plants. 

And here comes the honeybee, right?    

Close-up of a honeybee
When we talk about bees, we often only think of the honeybee - but there are some 20,000 other bee species around!Image: Sue Boo

Well... honeybees do, of course, pollinate flowers. But they're not the stars of the show. 

"The general public confounds bees with the honeybee," said Isabelle Dajoz, a pollination ecology researcher and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris. "It would be the same situation if, for example, you were talking about birds and people think that when you talk about birds, you talk about chicken, or you when you talk about mammals, people would think only of sheep."   

There are around 20,000 different species of bees. Yes, you read that right. Most are wild, solitary, and highly specified to certain plants, which make them much better at pollinating. Bumblebees, for example, perform buzz pollination — while holding onto the flower they, you guessed it, buzz loudly to release the pollen, something honeybees can't do. And it's not just bumblebees that are so good at their jobs.     

Even though we can't accurately measure the value of this wild bee pollination, crops around the world would suffer without it. Yields in the United States are already lower due to wild bee decline, and a recent study found that globally, we may have already lost a quarter of wild bee species. This also has major implications for life at higher trophic levels.  

 "Lots of animals depend on diverse plant communities for their food, for their nesting habitat. For example, lots of birds, lots of little mammals will eat the fruits or seeds of plants," said Dajoz. There's no telling how devastating wild bee loss is to both our food security and the stability of ecosystems.   

Are honeybees in trouble?  

Honeybee colonies are definitely suffering losses due to climate change and intensive agriculture, but the idea that they are dying off is only partially correct, according to German Beekeepers Association DIB. Because they are managed by humans and receive veterinary care, they are comparatively safe. 

Have we've been saving the wrong bees all along?  

 Yes, and we need to stop obsessing over honeybees and turn our attention to wild ones. There's no need to become a backyard beekeeper to save the bees. It actually makes the situation worse!

Bees sitting on a hive
Introducing bee colonies into your backyard might not be such a good idea after all...Image: Robert Michael/dpa/picture alliance


Beekeeping is immensely complicated. If you were to set up a honeybee hive where there previously wasn't one, this can actually endanger wild bees.  Basically, leave beekeeping to the beekeepers.    

What can I do if I want to help?  

Wooden house as shelter for bees
You can help provide bees with shelter and provide a safe haven for them in your backyardImage: R. Schoenenberg/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Wild bees and honeybees both love diverse habitats of native plants, so planting them in a backyard or even a balcony helps to support all bees. The larger the variety of plants, the more different types of wild bees will be able to find food.  

Helping them find nesting ground is another option. They like to make homes in dead logs, as well as in open, sunny ground. A manicured lawn is the worst place for all bees. And opt for organic produce instead to support regenerative agriculture.