FunNature & AnimalNot all bees disappearing the worrying ones do not...

Not all bees disappearing the worrying ones do not usually attract attention


If the bees disappeared from the face of the Earth, humanity would have four years of existence left ”, says a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. This is because a large amount of the food we consume depends, directly or indirectly, on the existence of bees. Directly, the vegetables and fruits that pollinate, and indirectly, the livestock that we feed with vegetation that is also pollinated by bees.

However, behind that quote there are several interesting issues that are not always mentioned when talking about the disappearance of bees and their risks. The first is perhaps more obvious; Albert Einstein does not seem to have said such a thing . The origin of the quote seems to be in the columnist Ernest A. Fortin, who in 1941 attributed to the German physicist certain assumptions that, in reality, belonged to Charles Darwin .

Therefore, we can infer as highly probable that
if the whole genus of bees
[inc. bumblebees] became extinct or
were very rare in England, pansies or clovers
reds would become very rare or disappear

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

The statement, like a ‘ broken telephone ‘ message, was exaggerated over time, from a few species, to thousands, tens of thousands, and from there, to humanity. Darwin also spoke of bees in a very broad sense — he used the English term ‘humble-bees’, which includes bumblebees—. And those four years of ultimatum to humanity we do not find it anywhere in any scientific text ; in fact, it appears written for the first time in 1965 by the French journalist Pierre Pascaud.

Bees are not a single species

When thinking of bees, people often think of only one species: the honey bee. Even the reports about bees and the impacts they suffer focus mainly on the honey bee and the production of honey. This species is very peculiar. It lives in large hives with a strong social organization. Currently, in Spain, it is fully managed by beekeepers. It is still a kind of productive livestock, like goats or chickens .

However, in the natural environment there are many other species that are often ignored when it comes to this problem. In Spain alone, according to data from the Wild Bees Association, there are more than a thousand species of wild bees ; each species with its behaviors and peculiar traits, very different from those of the honey bee. There are very large species, such as the carpenter bee ( Xylocopa violacea ), and tiny ones, such as those belonging to the genus Micrandrena , smaller than an ant. There are social species, and solitary species; there are those that nest in holes in the wood, or directly on the ground. Some are generalists, visiting many types of flowers, and others are highly specialist, feeding on only a few species.

In addition, the networks that are established between pollinators and plants can be very complex and difficult to understand. So when we talk about a hypothetical disappearance of bees, it is not as simple as the extinction of a species.

In the case of the honey bee , there are certain impacts that can affect their populations; they have very specific pathologies of their own, their exposure to insecticides is greater than that of wild species —because they are more associated with rural environments and less with wild environments— and, as they live in fixed colonies, they are easy prey for invasive predatory species such as the wasp Asian ( Vespa velutina ). However, in spite of everything, it is a species totally controlled by the human being, and there is no indication that indicates risk of extinction .

And the rest of the bees?

Many potential impacts can negatively affect other bee species, including major drivers of global change.

Land use change, especially the removal of wild land for farming, reduces the amount of food available to many wild bees; some of them are very specialized and require certain types of flowers, which disappear when a crop is introduced where there was previously scrub or forest.

The more biodiverse an environment is, the more robust the wild bee community can be , and an area dominated by a single species, such as a crop, can cause a serious problem for these populations.

In addition, along with agricultural activity, there is usually pollution caused by insecticides , which act negatively on their health, fungicides , on their digestive microbiota, and herbicides that eliminate the so-called “weeds”, but which are a source of food for plants. bees.

On the other hand, the introduction of exotic species can cause competition and displacement of native species, transmission of diseases and even predation, such as the already mentioned Asian hornet.

There is no shortage of voices suggesting that hypothetical electromagnetic pollution or transgenic organisms are also behind the loss of bees, but there is no real evidence that such a thing is happening.

Of course, anthropogenic climate change is also a factor causing the decline of numerous species, but there are also others that have shown a good capacity to adapt to this type of impact.

What about our food?

It is true that bees pollinate much of the food we eat; but again, it is not the task of a single species. In fact, many foods that we put in our mouths are pollinated by wild bees, and the honey bee could not be an effective substitute .

However, some scientists propose that, in order to protect wild bees, it is counterproductive to pay attention only to useful pollination services for our crops . In general, wild bee communities visiting crops are represented by a small number of species that are generally quite common, while those threatened species are rarely seen on crops. Furthermore, those species that visit crops —and ultimately feed us— are tolerant to agricultural expansion, while other species are the ones most at risk of extinction, those that find no food in our agriculture .

Conserving the biodiversity of bees —or of any other group, for that matter— should not be based , therefore, or at least not solely, on the ecosystem services it provides us.


Bartomeus, I. et al. 2013. Historical changes in northeastern US bee pollinators related to shared ecological traits. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(12), 4656-4660. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1218503110

Bartomeus, I. et al. 2022. Wild Bees Association.

Kleijn, D. et al. 2015. Delivery of crop pollination services is an insufficient argument for wild pollinator conservation. Nature Communications, 6(1), 7414. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8414

Molina, C. et al. 2019. Field guide to bees in Spain.

Quote Investigator. 2013. If the Bee Disappeared Off the Face of the Earth, Man Would Only Have Four Years Left To Live. Quote Investigator.

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