The Importance of Bees to Our Food Supply

By Rowan Jacobsen, "...or Not to Bee," March/April 2009

If honeybees disappear, they’ll take some of our healthiest foods with them.

A Sweet Deal

A hundred million years ago, as dinosaurs were cruising the savannahs and munching on ferns, pines and each other, bees and plants hammered out the details of a deal that has been benefiting the rest of Earth’s denizens ever since. Until that time, plants had used the wind to disseminate their pollen. But wind pollination is like Internet spam: you need to send a million packets to find one receptive target. So sometime in the Cretaceous Period, one group of plants decided to start MapQuesting each other instead. Why rely on the fickle wind when bugs could carry pollen directly between two plants? The trick was in getting the couriers’ attention.

Until then, plants had spent several hundred million years trying to discourage animals from eating them. Toxins, spikes and bitter-tasting leaves were the order of the day. Now, in a startling about-face, these new plants decided to make themselves as appealing to animals as possible. They created beguiling shapes, colors and odors to snag passersby and offered up delicious nectar punches free to all. When the bugs—and, later, birds, bats and butterflies—dropped by for their morning sip, they’d get sticky pollen all over their hairy bodies and inadvertently deliver it to the next café. The flower was born. And fruit was soon to follow.

Not many things out there want to be eaten. Talk to your basil all you want before you pick it; it’s still a bad day for the basil. And if you’ve ever watched a hare tuck its ears back and turn on the afterburners, you know that the name of the game of life is don’t get eaten. But not for the flowering plants: they eagerly offer nectar, pollen, fruits and nuts. They want to keep us healthy and enthusiastic so that we’ll keep spreading their seeds around the planet. (And when it comes to providing these services, we humans are the only species that’s been nearly as helpful as the bees.)

In evolution, this arrangement, where two species cooperate to the benefit of both, is called mutualism. And if you’ve ever wondered why fruits and vegetables have so many compounds in them that keep us healthy, wonder no more. The plants that have prospered are the ones that give animals (including us) what they need—antioxidants, vitamins and fiber that are critical to our health. And the successful animals (including us) are the ones that thrive on what the plants have to offer.

What a fantastically beautiful arrangement. And what a shame it would be if we blew it by forgetting that honeybees have always been a part of the team.

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