Pollination and human health are closely linked. I like to say that we get full without pollinators, but healthy only with them. Of course, human health – like bee health – depends on many factors. But as you all know: Healthy nutrition is an important part of it. This insight also arrived in human medicine as I learned when I found this Lancet paper. It quantifies not only how much our nutrition depends on pollinators but the impact on the frequency of certain diseases like cancer or diabetes. These non-communicable diseases would increase substantially if pollinators declined or disappeared completely. What surprised me most about this are the numbers: the authors estimate that losing 50% of pollinators would cause 700,000 additional deaths per year – caused by non-communicable diseases as well as those related to malnutrition. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?
I already talked about malnutrition, but I didn’t realize the additional health burden coming from these “civilization issues”, like cardiovascular disease. Not that surprising, perhaps. They’re commonly linked to lifestyle questions like nutrition, exercise, etc. But I was surprised about the major countries where the largest impacts are expected: China, India, and Russia. Not the typical countries for the unhealthy Western lifestyle, but again regions where we don’t know much about the pollinator diversity and their decline. It also shows that painting environmental issues as a “first world problem” is very wrong. Pollinator conservation also saves human lives. Or as the authors of this study say it:
In conclusion, pollinator-related losses of foods and micronutrients have the potential to substantially increase the burden of disease from non-communicable disease and micronutrient deficiencies around the world.Smith et al. 2015
As we didn’t have already enough burden from disease… This also stresses how important pollinators are to fight and prevent these issues.
One Health – the link between pollination and human health
The reason why I stumbled over this paper was that I’m working on a course on honey bee health. It’s planned for the end of September, so stay tuned (and subscribe to the Bee Health Letters to get the information when it’s out!). An important element for my concept of honey bee health is the One Health concept. In short, this concept links human, animal, and environmental health. Pollinators are part of a healthy environment; they provide us with the nutrients we need for a healthy life. In addition, we have the double aspect of managed and non-managed pollinators.
A few days ago, I talked with a dear friend and colleague about the question if honey bees are “wildlife” or “domesticated animals”. It started with my statement that colonies in human hands aren’t wildlife because the conditions they live in aren’t natural. Beekeeping isn’t “natural”. His point was: honey bees are still wild animals, as they still display the full range of natural behaviour. Like swarming, defensive behaviour, etc. He said that they’re wild animals in human care. I understand this point, but I’m not totally convinced. Beekeepers do influence their colonies’ behaviour. By massing them on apiaries, artificial insemination, or honey harvest.
A holistic approach to bee health
We finally agreed that independently of these classifications, beekeepers have a responsibility to keep their colonies healthy. Managed bees transmit their diseases to wild pollinators, thus impacting environmental health. We know this from honey bees and bumblebees. This has a negative effect on biodiversity (again, environmental health). On the other hand, high biodiversity “dilutes” the frequency of these diseases. Considering that managed bees show up in high densities in the areas they’re brought to, they can be a driver for rapid transmission events. Superspreaders, so to speak. The mechanisms are similar, for humans in a pandemic or for pollinators.
Considering the relationship between pollination and human health I discussed at the beginning, this responsibility gets an additional dimension. This is why the One Health model slowly is getting some momentum in (honey) bee science. A recent paper criticizes that most research on honey bee health focuses on single larger factors. Though offering solutions for them, this doesn’t stop the issues apiculture and wild pollinators face. One could argue that there are still pesticides in farmland, that there’s still varroa infestation etc. Sure. But – I said this before and I’m very glad to find it in this paper, too – we won’t change much if we focus only on single factors. We need a holistic approach. We need to take a step back from time to time to check if we’re still going in the right direction.
Practical consequences of the One Health approach
All this may seem very theoretical to you. But it definitely has practical applications and importance. I already mentioned the responsibility beekeepers carry for the health of their colonies. By their good practices, they do their part in better human and environmental health, too. It’s like this phrase “Think globally, act locally.”. Every one of us is only able to do what is in his range of influence but no one should underestimate the effect even little things have on the big picture. By maintaining good practices in beekeeping, we finally also strengthen the connection between pollination and human health.
The colleague I mentioned earlier and I both see changes in the diseases we observe in honey bee colonies. Some diseases occur more frequently now than a few years ago. Maybe this is a turning point for honey bee health. Like the one when Varroa destructor shifted to our Western honey bees. We know more now than 50 years ago. Let’s use this knowledge to confront the upcoming challenges in a better way. Beekeepers, bee inspectors, vets, farmers, conservationists, etc. must learn about the challenges. And be able to recognize them. These are the skills I want to teach you in the upcoming workshop.
This post is part of my endeavour to end black and white thinking. I do this by explaining how much bees – or pollinators in general – and their health matter and how they fit in the “big picture”. If you want to learn more, you have three ways to do so:
- Subscribe to the “Bee Health Letters”, with monthly info on bee health and everything related to it. Scroll down until you get to “Keep current with BeeSafe!”. Or send me a line with your questions.
- I will link the upcoming workshop here as soon as I have the subscription page ready. You’ll be among the first to know if you subscribe to the Bee Health Letters!
- If you have specific questions about pollinators contact me for a free 20-minute Zoom call and we’ll see how I can help you. Without any commitment. I’d be happy to be your “bee health coach”, but if it doesn’t fit, that’s ok.