“There is one masterpiece, the hexagonal cell, that touches perfection. No living creature, not even man, has achieved, in the centre of his sphere, what the bee has achieved in her own: and were some one from another world to descend and ask of the earth the most perfect creation of the logic of life, we should needs have to offer the humble comb of honey.”— Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, 1924
What is the most important animal to humans? In prehistoric times, the dog helped transform early hunter-gatherers into apex predators. Later, human civilization was built on the backs of horses. But starting around 11,500 years ago, when humans began making permanent settlements and invented agriculture, bees emerged as the most critical animal to human survival.
By pollinating crops around the world, honeybees feed more than 7 billion people today. Most of the food that we eat (and all of our cotton) is produced in part by the hard work of bees. In her 2011 book The Beekeeper’s Lament, journalist Hannah Nordhaus described honeybees as “the glue that holds our agricultural system together.”
The importance of bees isn’t limited to humans, of course. By promoting the reproduction of angiosperms, or flowering plants, bees are also central to the survival of countless other animal species that rely on those plants and their fruits to survive. In fact, Earth’s entire planetary ecology has been shaped by bees. Since they first evolved from wasps some 100 million years ago, bees have driven the evolution of plant life.
Sadly, in recent times, we have not treated our bee friends well. The use of pesticides — neonicotinoids in particular, which are commonly used on corn, soybean, canola and cereal, as well as many fruits and vegetables — have killed an estimated 250 million bees in a just a few years. Applied to plants, neonics travel through the plant’s vascular system and appear in roots, pollen and nectar that then are tranferred to bees and their colonies, as well as other untargeted and vulnerable species, from earthworms to birds and even bats.