Bee Movie (2007), an animated children’s movie about the lives of bees, highlights bee’s unpaid work of producing honey for humans. Although it is a comedy and does not address the issue in quite a serious way, it is true that bees provide us with free services of plant pollination and honey production. Especially pollination is a vital ecosystem service. If bees were to go extinct, our food supplies would decrease rapidly in variety due to the loss of pollination and the effects of this on the food chain.
In “The Fable of the Bees: an Economic Investigation,” Steven Cheung introduced us to the market of beekeeping (Cheung 1973). He disputes earlier arguments that describe the processes of bees feeding on nectar and pollinating apple blossoms as an unaccounted for “public good” that will be underprovided. Cheung argues that there is a robust market in beekeeping with established financial relationships between farmers and beekeepers, including agreements on when to use pesticides to minimize harm to bees. Still, this paper was written in the ‘70s, and times have changed. Pesticide use, including glyphosate, has increased significantly over the past decades. Importantly, glyphosate use is known to harm honey bees, specifically affecting their gut bacteria.
So how do the benefits of using glyphosate as a weed killer weigh up against the negative effects it has on bees, and the related loss in pollination services and honey production? A logical way of addressing this is by conducting a cost-benefit analysis to compare the monetized benefits of bees services to the costs of using glyphosate under alternative scenarios. One alternative is a full stop to the use of pesticides, which would be benefit bees greatly, but lead to a significant cost due to reduced crop yield for farmers. Another is to substitute a different weed killer, but according to farmers, finding an alternative that is as cheap, and cost-effective as glyphosate is quite the challenge. The bees versus glyphosate controversy is one with essentially the same stakes on each side: food production for humans. No wonder that this issue hasn’t been solved yet.
Bottom line: Bees and pesticides both have positive purposes for food production, and we will have to find a way to ensure sufficient food production in the long term without losing bees as our critical pollinators.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).