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Many areas of agriculture depend on pollinators. Scientists estimate that 200,000 - 350,000 different animal species help with pollination, from birds to bats, marsupials to monarch butterflies. But when it comes to the majority of crops around our globe, we have bees to thank.
Pollinators are critical to the food system as we know it, but can we quantify their value? It turns out, maybe we can.
Every season, pollination from honey bees, native bees, and flies deliver billions of dollars (U.S.) in economic value. Between $235 and $577 billion (U.S.) worth of annual global food production relies on their contribution. A With such an impact on the economy, it begs the question: if these critical insects were public companies, how might they stack up in the global marketplace?
Market cap: $20 billion
Managed honey bees are the most valuable pollinators in terms of agricultural economics. These hyper-efficient insects can provide pollination to virtually any crop. Almonds, for example, are almost entirely dependent upon honey bee pollination. Without honey bees, the harvest of blueberries, squash, watermelon, and other fruits would be greatly reduced, driving up prices and disrupting the marketplace. According to the USDA, one colony of honey bees is worth 100 times more to the community than to the beekeeper — meaning the value they deliver extends well beyond their actual price.C
Honey is more than just a by-product of pollination. This sweet nectar serves as an economic driver in its own right. Used commercially for food, skin creams, anti-aging lotions, and medical wound dressings, over 160 million pounds of honey are produced each year in the U.S. alone. In 2013, the honey crop was valued at over $300 million (U.S.).D
Beeswax and pollen are also produced by these insects, and are used in lip balm and other cosmetic products. Propolis, a resinous sealant created by bees to construct their hives, serves as a varnish for stringed musical instruments, and in some countries serves as toothpaste or mouthwash.
Market cap: $4 billion
Industrious native bees
Wild species like bumble bees and alfalfa leaf cutter bees are often not recognized for their contribution to agriculture. But these insects provide a valuable supplement to commercial honey bee colonies, even pollinating certain crops more efficiently than their domesticated counterparts.
During bloom, honey bees and native bees partner to provide pollination for berries, alfalfa, and citrus fruits. Although their actual economic value is much smaller than honey bees, the value of wild bees is significant. Aside from maintaining habitats that attract pollinators, native bees arrive at no cost to farmers yet still help improve the quality and quantity of their harvest.
Market cap: $5.7 billion
The little midge
The cacao plant requires a very particular climate to thrive. One reason is the crop’s reliance on wild pollinators found in these subtropical habitats. A type of fly known commonly as a “midge” provides pollination similar to bees.
Cacao farms in Africa, Australia, and South America rely on this fly the size of a pinhead to crawl into the tiny flowers of a cacao plant. Valued at over 100 billion dollars (U.S.), the chocolate industry depends on pollinating flies like the little midge.
Making the most of pollinators
Agricultural leaders understand both the economic and ecological importance of pollinators. Each season these insects provide a service that boosts harvest size and quality creates value for farmers and drives the global food supply. It’s hard to imagine an ecosystem where they are absent.
Without pollinators, more than 39 different crops would see a decline in production. In order to meet demand, farmers would be forced to pursue more intensive and less environmentally sustainable practices. More land would likely be needed to match current production levels. Farming these greater landmasses would result in greater carbon emissions from the increased operation of tractors and other machinery. And by expanding the physical footprint of farms, organisms in wild habitats would risk being displaced or disrupted.
These tiny insects play a large role in the preservation of our ecosystem and economy, helping agriculture grow enough while using fewer natural resources.