News reports insistently tell us that bees pollinate one-third of the world’s food supply. But what does that really mean?
First of all, that estimate varies with the researcher, but it usually includes all animal-pollinated crops, not just those pollinated by bees. These animal pollinators include many types of insects as well as birds and bats. Nevertheless, some folks estimate that bees are responsible for about 75% of all animal pollination. But again, the numbers vary.
Secondly, the “one-third” estimate usually includes that portion of the meat supply that was fed animal-pollinated crops, such as alfalfa and clover. This is another number that is hard to calculate because, in modern agriculture, more and more animals are fed grains instead of leafy forage.
The two-thirds of the food supply not pollinated by animals is dominated by the grains. Most grains are in the grass family and are normally pollinated by the wind. They include wheat, corn, millet, rice, rye, barley, oats, spelt, sorghum, and lesser known crops such as teff and triticale. Quinoa and amaranth are two non-grass grains that also require no animal pollinators. The two-thirds portion also includes crops that could be pollinated by animals, but are not, such as potatoes. (Nearly all potatoes are propagated by seed pieces, which are not seeds at all but chunks of potato that sprout when planted.) Lastly, the two-thirds includes fish, and that amount of meat which is raised on grain or other crops not pollinated by animals.
So why are animal-pollinated plants so important? The grains and meat can supply all the calories, protein, and fat we could possibly use, but the flowering plants provide the vast array of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, flavonoids, antioxidants, and trace elements that we need for good health. We could not survive in a world devoid of the animal-pollinated plants, so caring for pollinators is not a choice but a necessity.
For some awesome photographs of pollinators in action, check out this National Geographic Photo Gallery.