Strength in numbers? You better bee-lieve it

Some people say that this is the “age of man,” but that is probably just because men get to say such things. If insects got to write newspaper columns, they would probably say this is the “age of insects.”

Estimates from various sources differ, but most experts think the number of insect species is close to a million. However, there are at least twice that many that have not been identified. Some people think there could be as many as 30 million different species. They probably represent about 80 percent of the known animals in the world. At any given time there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.

I don’t know if mere numbers make insects any more valuable than men, but from a biological perspective their numbers are impressive. They must be doing something right, and they have been doing it for a lot longer than humans. The earliest insects seem to have originated about 400 million years ago. The earliest human-like critter is estimated to have lived around 200,000 years ago.  Now I am the first to admit that age doesn’t always produce wisdom (just ask my children). However, insects seem to be good at staying alive.

I don’t know whether this is the age of man or the age of insects. I am not even totally clear on what age I am. When I recently asked my doctor why I was having trouble with my eyes, I was told that I was old. Then he charged me money for that. So, being old, and therefore wise, I still think deciding which animal is more important than another is sort of beyond me. We are all so tangled up together here on Earth. If we want to talk about the value of one animal over another, though, I have a suggestion.

According to the USDA, the value of pollination to agriculture in the United States was $15 billion in the year 2000. Then, according to the American Bee Journal, in 2010 there were some 2.5 million beehives in the United States. While these data are separated by 10 years, they are the best I could find. But that puts the value of a single beehive at close to $600 per hive, and that is just counting the hives’ value to the public in pollination.

According to Bee Culture magazine, the value of honey produced in the United States last year was close to $300 million. That, divided by the number of hives, adds another $120 to the value of the hive for a total of $720 per hive. Of course, there is also a market for bees, bees wax, pollen and propolis. Now most beekeepers can only dream of making $700 per hive. Like the old saying goes, “There is a lot of money in beekeeping. Most of it is going out.”

Then I attended a seminar a couple of weeks ago. The presenter said Pennsylvania State University had conducted a study and found that one bee hive was worth about $13,000 to the public in goods and pollination. (I have to assume their data is better than mine. After all they are a University.) Of course the study was measuring the entire benefit to the public. Since bees can forage for up to five miles, and routinely forage for three miles, many gardens and commercial farmers benefit from pollination they never pay for. That seems to be the big difference between our estimates.

I don’t know if that makes bees more important than any other animal. It does indicate that maybe communities and neighborhoods ought to be encouraging beekeeping, not discouraging it.

Just for the public good, if you are interested in bees, check out the Palisade International Honeybee Festival 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 16, in downtown Palisade.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and, although too humble to promote himself, is one of the presenters at the Honeybee Festival. At noon April 16 at Mumzel’s in downtown Palisade, McCallister will give an educational presentation on beekeeping.


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