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How Important Is A Bee?

Friday, December 06, 2013 - 10:36 AM

This is an alarming story, not because it ends badly. It's alarming because it ends well. It shouldn't have, but it did, and biologists (and especially conservationists) now have a puzzle to ponder.

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

The story begins in central China, in an apple-growing region called Maoxian County, near the city of Chengdu. In the mid-1990s, the bees that regularly showed up there every spring suddenly didn't. Apple farmers, obviously, need bees. Bees dust their way through blossoms, moving from flower to flower, pollinating, which helps produce apples in September.

What happened to the bees?

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

Science writer J.B. MacKinnon, in a book, blames pesticides, in part. But there's no single explanation. He also says "(h)oney hunters were taking too much honey. People were chopping down too many trees."

Whatever the reason, the bees went missing and the farmers had to do something, and do it quickly. So they decided to replace bees with humans. They pollinated by hand.

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

In 1997, Maoxian apple growers, using brushes made from chopsticks and chicken feathers (and sometimes cigarette filters), went from blossom to blossom — just as bees do, to spread pollen. People worked full shifts, moving up the hillsides as each orchard hit blossom-time. News stories were written about this, with the obvious conservation moral: See, biologists said, this is what happens when we don't take care of the smaller creatures, the pollinators, the leaf eaters, the beach cleaners — the little critters we depend on! When they disappear, the work they did for free suddenly becomes expensive. That was the moral of the Bee Story — until three economists took a second look.

The Economists' Version of the Bee Story

John Gowdy, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, along with colleagues Lisi Krall and Yunzhong Chen, arranged interviews in Mao Xing county with the local farmers — first early in the 2000s, and again (when Chen went back) in 2011.

What they learned (and published) was a shocker. First, the apple farmers reported that apple production was not hurt by the absence of bees. In fact, the apple harvest was "30 to 40 percent greater" when humans did the pollinating. "Human pollinators," wrote J.B. MacKinnon, "were better at getting to every blossom, performed cross-pollination more efficiently, and could work in windy, rainy weather."

Bees, you should know, are less dependable. They don't like working when it's wet.

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

They sleep a lot.

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

They don't like the cold.

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

What's more, from an economic perspective, people contribute more to the local economy than bees do. When Chinese workers get paid (even though in this case much of the work was bartered), they use their money to buy food, get haircuts, and pay rent. And those payments employ other people. "Worker bees don't head off to the bar or the grocery store when their day is done," writes MacKinnon.

Which is why in a paper they called "The Parable of the Bees," the economists seemed to turn the moral of the Bee Tale on its head. They declared,

Using the example of apple tree pollination in Maoxian County, China, we argue that destroying and replacing the free gifts of nature can be an economic benefit.

Apple farmers, they concluded, "prefer to use human beings because ... with [the increase in yield and fairly low labor costs] it makes economic sense to use people instead of bees."

Woah! Well, you can imagine what biologists must have thought. This paper sounds as if the economists said there are some critters we humans don't really need to have around to lead a good life. So let's not get hung up on biological diversity, because we can live fairly well — maybe even be better off — in a less diverse, biologically shrunken world.

The next question being, what other animals don't we need?

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Robert Krulwich/NPR

All of us think about this from time to time. In a world with 28,000 different species of beetles, is it so terrible to imagine living perfectly well with a few hundred or even a few thousand fewer? Beetle lovers and conservationists believe the right thing to do is to save as many as we can — all of them if possible. But in a practical way, with an extra billion new humans on the planet every 13 years, we know there's going to be habitat loss. Somebody's got to go, but who? Which ones do we sacrifice? If three endangered species of beetle differ by the number of red dots on their abdomens, what do we do? Roll dice?

Three bugs

Robert Krulwich/NPR

One approach, of course, is to put a dollar value on living creatures. If worms regularly aerate and turn the soil in a pasture, what would it cost to replace them if they disappeared? For years, economists have been asked to measure the "ecosystem services" of trees, insects, and animals, big and small. A dollars-and-cents evaluation feels like a more rational, more businesslike way to make decisions about what's worth protecting.

The 'Real' Lesson of the China Bee Story ...

The problem is, it's not easy to do. It may be impossible. Yes, we can measure a bee's contribution to the apple business. But bees also make honey and can see things we can't (with eyes that may one day teach us something about vision). Bees might one day evolve habits or chemistries that will help our great-great-grandchildren. There is also a value to simply having bees to look at, buzzing out the window in the garden. How do we know what our grandchildren will value, will want, will need? Economists can't measure things that haven't happened yet. And while apple farmers might profitably replace a honeybee, what would it cost to replace a redwood tree, assuming we could ever build one?

The three economists — Gowdy, Krall and Chen — end their "Bee Paradox" paper saying that even though people outperformed bees in apple orchards, that should not argue for their elimination. On the contrary, they say, the Maoxian case study "illustrates the danger of allowing the logic of the market to drive conservation policy ... [The Bee Story shows] the danger of leaving the fate of nature to the whims of the markets, even if prices are "correct."

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In other words, they're saying, don't come to economists to resolve this. Life is not reducible to cash equivalents. Those missing bees weren't valuable in Maoxian County, but that doesn't mean they don't have value. These decisions are much more complex.

So what's to be done? Conservation groups have spent the last 60 years saying, "Don't touch that beetle! Or that one! Or that one!" And it hasn't worked. The group that tracks these things, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, shows with its Red List Of Threatened Species that species of mammals, birds, amphibians and corals keep declining.

"We know absolutely that something has to be different," says Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund.

And so, for a number of reasons, one by one, prominent conservation groups are shifting to the "money matters" side, and stepping away from a strong defense of biodiversity. As environmental journalist Hillary Rosner reports in the magazine Ensia,

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Chat with a conservation leader today and you're likely to hear some fairly surprising things. We can't do it species by species. Protected areas aren't going to be enough. Saving the last place or the last of the species is not our focus.

The exact messages may differ ... but the theme is constant: Something needs to change.

The change that's coming has different names. It's called "people friendly" or "business friendly," or "adaptable." It seems to be consciously less confrontational, and more willing to find a middle ground, to work with big companies, and local communities and to concentrate on finding new, economic, or practical rationales to keep plants and animals going. Instead of the old conservation war cries, "More Parks!" or "Every Beetle Matters!" this message tilts strongly in the opposite direction.

Maybe the boldest example Hillary Rosner cites is an essay published last year in The Breakthrough, written by (gulp!) the Nature Conservancy's chief scientist, Peter Kareiva (with Robert Lalascz and Michelle Marvier). The essay explicitly rejects the dream of more separate, vast wild spaces, more national parks, and instead imagines ...

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... a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.

Did he say "jettison?" And "idealizied?" Those are fighting words. More traditional conservationists were horrified, calling this a surrender, an indefensible, inchoate, dangerous position that will hurt the cause of biodiversity, and condemn more living creatures to a quicker extinction. So the pot is now boiling, with angry back and forths on the chatlines at the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and across the conservation world. This is getting wild, and very interesting.

There is a lesson to be learned from those missing bees in China, but what that lesson is has become a big, angry question. I'm going to come back to this ... often.

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Comments [4]

MaLisa Spring

I would call the experiment into question, or at least look more in depth with the actual methods. As Sam pointed out, how were they comparing the crop changes? Are they comparing across time or in different locations? That could be a major flaw.

Another point is looking that the other insect populations. If the other insects, say ones that would decrease yield such as borers, were also gone, then it would make sense that the yield would be greater in the insect free zone.

Dec. 17 2013 05:46 PM
alan from Shackled to a sewing machine in China

Seems like typical free market baloney. Do you think these farmers are getting a living wage? It is highly doubtful, considering a living wage in the US is 15 dollars an hour and there is no minimum wage close to that here. So I am just wondering if we get rid of the bees, wouldn't that either make it necessary to maintain a giant force of underpaid workers or the price of the product would dramatically increase. I would like to see how long Robert could work in the fields for 50 cent an hour and support his family. That would make a great experiment for Radiolab! :-)

Dec. 13 2013 08:55 PM

This blog is another inaccurate portrayal of bees by Robert Krulwich (for his others see 'What Is It About Bees And Hexagons?' and 'The Fact of the Matter'. This blog, like his other forays into the world of bees, requires a full article in reply. I suggest these for reading: the United Nations FAO paper 'Hand pollination of pears and its implications for biodiversity conservation and environmental protection -- A case study from Hanyuan County, Sichuan Province, China' among other literature from the area such as ISHS Acta Horticulturae 561: VIII International Symposium on Pollination - Pollination: Integrator of Crops and Native Plant Systems, POLLINATION FAILURE IN APPLE CROP AND FARMERS' MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES IN HENGDUAN MOUNTAINS, CHINA'. These and other papers clearly show bees are much less costly than humans., and more effective. One reason bees are not successfully pollinating the crops is the excessive use of pesticide sprays (beekeepers have refused to bring their bees to orchards, and wild or native bees cannot survive there). A second reason is that many of these orchards in question here were planted and grafted improperly, so that 'pollinizer' tree varieties are not present. This means compatible pollen is not present for bees to transfer! On the other hand, humans are given purchased compatible pollen, brought in from afar. I should mention that many native bees have been shown to be much more effective (up to 70 times more) than honey bees at pollinating apples. More to say later. But, yes, we should look well beyond economics, because it is a study incapable of comprehending and making fully informed decisions in the complicated natural world which can be full of morally inclined humans.

Dec. 11 2013 09:27 PM
Chris

"Those missing bees weren't valuable in Maoxian County"
The economists concluded that the bees were of smaller economic value than human hand pollination of *apples and pears* in this county. Bees pollinate the majority of wild plants and one third of our crops.

I hope no one steps away from this article thinking that bees, particularly their pollination services, are expendable, while other species may be difficult to replace (Robert gives the example of a redwood tree). I have worked with small farmers who depend on bees - wild bees that visit their farms. I can't see these farmers wanting to hire hands to go squash by squash flower, berry by berry flower, transferring pollen. Yes, bees have other values that Robert mentions, but we should continue to recognize and value how important bee$ are for pollination.

Dec. 11 2013 06:41 PM

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