Loss of honey bees and other pollinators could mean malnutrition for millions around the world

New research from scientists at the University of Vermont and Harvard University demonstrates the devastating impact the continued loss of pollinators like honey bees could have on millions of people in the developing world.

Since honey bees play such a critical role in pollination of various plants and crops, their decline across the globe means a growing risk to the nutrition of people living in areas most dependent upon those foods. The study, published in the January issue of the scientific journal PLOS ONE, combines dietary and nutritional data with pollination rates and finds potential for severe health effects in such regions.

“The take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example, which can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria,” UVM scientist Taylor Ricketts, who co-led the study, said in a press release.

Those at particular risk include mothers and children in countries like Mozambique, where as much as 56 percent of the population could be at risk of malnutrition if pollinators disappear.

The current decline in bee populations started in the mid 2000s, when beekeepers started noticing large scale losses attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that causes bees to suddenly abandon their hives en masse. The exact cause of CCD is still unknown, but potential explanations range from mites to neurotoxic pesticides.

In June, the White House announced the creation of a task force headed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Agriculture Department charged with identifying ways to stem the growing crisis by promoting colony health and stemming the plight.

Although bee decline is a large ingredient to the issues raised by the study, the researchers extended concern to other populations of pollinators as well and point to loss of ecosystem as another contributing factor.

“Ecosystem damage can damage human health,” Ricketts said. “Conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health.”

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