Scientists: Save the Bees, or People Will Go Hungry

New study finds that crashing pollinator populations increase malnutrition owing to vitamin A deficiency.

(Photo: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Jan 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Bees pollinate crops. Crops nourish people. Fewer bees (owing to pesticides, loss of habitat, and disease) means less food and more malnutrition.

It sounds logical, but there's been no science to back up this accepted wisdom—until now.

In a first-of-its-kind study published this month in the journal PLOS One, researchers at two New England universities have connected falling populations of pollinators, such as bees, to shortfalls of vitamin A, a crucial nutrient.

The scientists examined what foods people eat in four nations where women and children suffer from high rates of malnutrition: Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda, and Bangladesh. They also looked at data on which food regularly supplied people in these countries with five key nutrients: vitamin A, zinc, iron, folate, and calcium.

The researchers then developed two hypothetical case studies to estimate rates of malnourishment: In one, pollinator populations were completely healthy. In the other, bees and other pollinators had disappeared completely. Since bee colonies began to collapse around the globe nearly a decade ago, researchers have identified several environmental threats to these tiny animals, which pollinate about one-third of the world's food supply. They include a bacteria that attacks entire hives, habitat loss, and a class of widely used pesticides called neonicotinoids.

The researchers found that without a healthy supply of pollinators, the potential for vitamin A deficiencies grew depending on a person's diet.

In Zambia, children got vitamin A from fruits and vegetables that rely on pollinators and from other food sources as well, so the hypothetical absence of pollinators did not affect them severely. In Bangladesh, removing pollinators didn't have a huge impact only because people were already going hungry.

In Uganda, however, vitamin A deficiencies rose by 15 percent, and in Mozambique, by 56 percent.

The potential for calcium, zinc, iron, and folate malnutrition remained more or less the same in each scenario.

The finding rings public health alarms. Annually, "vitamin A deficiency causes an estimated 800,000 deaths in women and children, including 20–24 percent of child mortality from measles, diarrhea and malaria and 20 percent of all-cause maternal mortality,” the scientists wrote. “It is estimated to roughly double the risk of mortality from common conditions like measles, diarrhea, and malaria while increasing the risk of maternal mortality 4.5 times.”

The researchers acknowledge that nothing suggests that bees and other pollinators are going to vanish completely from these or any other countries, even though there have been serious declines in bee numbers in the past several years.

That does not diminish the importance of their findings. "Ecosystem damage can damage human health," Taylor Ricketts, a professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont and a study coauthor, said in a statement, "so conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health."