May 19, 2015 / 5:31 PM / in 5 years

That’s billion, with a bee: Measuring the massive cost of hive collapse

In farming, technology will only take you so far. GPS can help drive automated harvesters around the fields, satellites help to ensure the right crops get planted at the right time. But if you want your crops to grow, you’ll have to rely on something a little more old-fashioned: honey bees.

And they’re dying in enormous numbers:

The makers of insecticides containing neonics, Bayer and Syngenta chief among them, have a lot to lose if regulatory bodies end up siding with the environmentalists. More than 90 percent of the corn in the U.S. is treated with neonics, according to this release from Bayer. To put this in perspective, last year the USDA estimated that around 91.6 million acres of corn were planted in the United States. That’s a lot of neonic’d corn.

So what happens if — or when — we run out of honey bees?

In addition to posing a huge risk to global food supply, there would be dire economic repercussions. Right now, the honey bee adds more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy alone, through its pollination of fruits, vegetables and other crops, according to a 2014 report from the White House. Worldwide, that number is around $365 billion per year.

And it’s not just traditional farmers who would suffer. The honey bee industry in the U.S. pulls in more than $300 million in revenue a year, according to a December 2014 IbisWorld report. But as the bees die, some fear the industry will go with them. The American Beekeeping Federation told the Wall Street Journal that its membership has been massively depleted over the past 20 years.

The solution to a lack of honey bees might just be… different bees. At least that’s according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, which showed that attracting wild bees (in this case, by planting wildflowers at the edge of a crop) could aid in crop pollination – up to 50 percent of it, at least.

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