Support Provided ByLearn More

Wild Bees Are Vital to Agriculture, But Only 2% Do Most of the Work

ByAnna LiebNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

If wild bees cared about economics and stayed up to date with peer-reviewed ecology research, they might borrow a slogan from the Occupy movement.

“We are the 98%!”, millions of wild bees might shout, having recently learned that just 2% of their number account for 80% of income. Researchers recently quantified the economic value provided by various species of wild bees, and, in doing so, highlighted the difficulty of combining economics with conservation.

Support Provided ByLearn More

From almonds to zucchini, much of our food comes from flowering plants that rely on bees to reproduce. Without bees visiting flowers, these plants can’t have sex—which would halt production of coffee, cocoa, avocados, and hundreds of other tasty plant parts we enjoy every day. Unsurprisingly, bee pollination is worth quite a bit of money. The White House Pollinator Task Force recently estimated that bee pollination contributes $15 billion to the US economy.

Almond trees rely on bees for pollination.

Some of these breadwinner bees are livestock, bred and overseen by human beekeepers. But as a

recent paper in Nature Communications points out, wild bees also bring in a lot of dough for global agriculture: $8000 per acre, topping the $7200 managed bees contribute per acre. Wild bees are especially important in light of the dire state of managed bee populations, which have been mysteriously and dramatically plummeting in recent years.

These wild bees are an example of the concept of natural capital —things in the natural world that provide value to human beings. In this case, the value comes from commodities like strawberries, watermelons, and onions, which rely on bees to pollinate their flowers.

But not all wild bees are equally busy. The authors discovered that just 2% of wild bee species were laboring to make 80% of the flower visits. The other 98% of wild bee species together only works to pollinate the remaining 20% of flowers.

Here’s Chelsea Harvey at the Washington Post, quoting one of the study authors:

“That, to me, was a surprise — how few do so much of the work,” says co-author Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. The news underscores the idea that wild bees may deserve just as much attention as honeybees when it comes to their impact on agriculture.

But the numbers also highlight the fact that the idea of natural capital isn’t always enough to incentivize biodiversity. Since most bees, including some of the most threatened species, participate only minimally in the lucrative business of pollinating plants people like to eat, there’s not much economic incentive to protect them.

The authors argue that preserving a wide variety of bee species should still be a priority, since biodiversity affects the health of the larger ecosystem. They point out that moral arguments are invoked in favor of, say, caring for old people or maintaining historic sites. When economics fall short, they say, moral reasoning will be an important tool in convincing policymakers to fight for the 98%.