Not with a buzz but a whimper

The most familiar plea made by environmentalists warning us of the immanent disappearance of this or that species is a question: how will we explain the absence of the polar bear, or the manatee, or a certain species of eagle, to our children?

It is certainly a haunting prospect, imagining a world without a host of creatures, and describing things that are familiar to us in terms that will seem to children as fantastic as the creatures of their imaginations, or as strange and wonderful as the species that our ancestors hunted to extinction long ago.

It's an effective argument, because when we imagine the absent animals and the wide-eyed kids, we also imagine ourselves as sad and remorseful.It's probably fair to say that mammals inspire more than their fair share of remorse. It's not clear exactly why we need to save the harp seals, apart from the fact that it seems like the right thing to do, which appears to be the case in large part because they have big, round eyes, and helpless-looking bodies. They look like swaddled babies. Who wouldn't want to save them? Even people who have never seen, and will likely never see one in the flesh, are outraged at the prospect that they may be clubbed to extinction.

However, the creature I'm most worried about right now is not a mammal. It's an insect: the humble bee.

Stories have been trickling out in the past few weeks about the mysterious disappearance of bees around the world. In the US, some beekeepers lost as much as 90 percent of their bees over the winter. In the UK, the upper range has been 75 percent. The story is the same in Canada and Europe.

I'm not worried about the price of honey, or its disappearance from store shelves (though I can imagine telling children a generation from now about a wonderfully sweet food harvested from the nests of insects). I am rather more worried about the cascading effects of the bees' disappearance from our ecosystems and economies. The work bees do to pollinate our crops is worth about ten times as much as the honey they produce almost incidentally. In Canada alone, bees contribute about a billion dollars to the economy. Worldwide, the number is staggering. And it does not include the ancillary ecological benefits, which are impossible to value.

And it's not just money that will disappear without bees. It's also food. About a third of our crops are pollinated by bees. Who will pollinate them if not the bees? Albert Einstein once said that if the bees were to disappear, "man would have only four years of life left." Let's hope he was wrong.

No one knows what is causing the bees' disappearance, so it is too early to invoke climate change, or the Stern Review's accounting for "ecosystem services" as part of the cost of global warming. But that's not really the point. Recent speculation has it that cell-phone radiation is killing the hives. Perhaps that is so. But if your dog is run over, you don't wring your hands and wonder whether it was a car or a truck that killed the poor animal. You wring your hands at your own loss and the senseless death. It seems to me that this is the appropriate response to the deaths of so many bees.

Because, whatever it is that is killing the bees, and whatever the economic and ecological cost will be, the disappearance of species is something we're going to have to get used to. Perhaps these are not the right words, since we seem all too used to it already. But there is more in store.

The recent IPCC report warns that massive extinctions await us. Even one degree of warming exposes about 30 percent of the planet's species to extinction, and we are already committed to at least one degree of warming, by most accounts. Moreover, even expensive and deliberate attempts to protect species look doomed in many cases to fail. Keep in mind that the IPCC reports are generally deemed very conservative, because they contain only data and conclusions that all parties can agree on.

Bees may contribute heroically to our economies, but they are only one species among many thousands at risk. What will the consequences be of widespread extinctions?

But in the end, this is not an economic issue. It is a moral issue, as the question of how we will describe long-lost bees to our grandchildren shows us. In mythology and in literature, bees have always represented what is best in human nature: industriousness, cooperation, sweetness, the soul. This should give a sense of what is at stake.

Tags: Agriculture | Bees | Extinction