That old urban legend about Einstein and the bees has won fresh buzz, with Britain's Daily Telegraph currently repeating it like fact. As we discussed back in 2007, there's a lot of reason to be concerned about declining bees, but not because of something falsely attributed to Einstein.
Originally published 6/22/2007
Einstein was a smart guy, maybe the smartest guy ever. So when he said that the disappearance of bees would lead, within four years, to the disappearance of humans, people took notice.
"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."
Problem is, the famed physicist never said it.
With colony collapse disorder leading to unexplained and sometimes dramatic declines in commercial bee colonies in 35 states, that didnt stop the frequent recycling of the quote, which was first written down about 40 years after his death in 1955.
You cant always go by an absence of proof is proof of absence kind of thing. But with someone who is as well documented as Einstein, who lived in the 20th century, everything he said is pretty well documented and collated, said David Mikkelson, who runs the urban myth-debunking Web site Snopes.com with his wife.
Like many a quote, Mikkelson said, this one appears to have been attributed to Einstein to lend it an air of authority. As it happens, theres a grain of truth to the apocryphal quote, and the apocalyptic overtones arent far off the mark.
A National Academy of Sciences report last fall documented a crisis among North American pollinators especially honey bees and native bumblebees. European studies which benefited from better scientific data about population trends have documented similar declines in pollinators there.
Of about 240,000 flowering plants in North America, three quarters require the pollination of a bee, bird, bat or other animal or insect in order to bear fruit. Since many of our food crops with the exception of grains are imports, the imported honey bee is key to our food supply. Beyond that, no other pollinator can be collected, moved and unleashed to pollinate fields of crops like commercial beekeepers can do with honey bee colonies.
So losing bees would have repercussions throughout the food supply chain.
They are so integrated into so many different markets that I imagine there would be all kinds of collapses, said May Berenbaum, who was chair of the NAS committee that developed the pollinator report.
To illustrate how pervasive the honey bee is, consider a Big Mac, she said. All beef patties, the pickles, onions, lettuce, the cheese, the sesame seeds on the bun thats a lot.
If honey bees in North America disappeared, she said, the price of food would immediately go up, as we would have to rely on more and more imported foods. Poor families would find it hard to eat a nutritious diet.
If all honey bees disappeared worldwide, food would be scarce, as colonies of bees stopped pollinating fruit, nut and vegetable crops. (Except for grains, Berenbaum said. There would be plenty of bread.) Honey would disappear from the market, and the surprisingly varied users of wax would be forced to turn to more expensive alternatives. The ripples through the world economy would be profound and prolonged.
If all 7,000-plus species of bees disappeared from the Earth, those ripples would grow into tsunamis ruffling entire ecosystems. In some ecosystems, bees are keystone species a reference to an archs top stone, without which both sides collapse. As the plants that rely on bees died off, species that relied on those plants would suffer, leading to the decline or death of species that rely on them, and so on.
So with pollinators in decline in general, and honey bees doing a disappearing act that could well be unprecedented in magnitude, there is reason for worry.
Thats the rude awakening on this one, Berenbaum said. What may have once been a localized phenomenon could well be a global phenomenon.
No one's dire statements have quite the authority of Einstein's, but Berenbaum is optimistic that the current wave of public concern about bees could inspire the research and action needed to preserve an important, if underappreciated, player in the world's food web.
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