How Bees, Coffee Beans and Climate Change Are Inextricably Linked

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Farmers are also affected when declining bee populations stymie coffee bean harvests. . (Photo: Tati Nova photo Mexico/Shutterstock)

Maybe you like honey in your coffee, but other than that, you may think there's no real connection between coffee and bees. After all, the coffee we mostly drink — Arabica — comes from a self-pollinating plant.

Still, bees play an important role when it comes to coffee, acting as a kind of pollination booster. Their work means that coffee plants produce 20-25 percent more fruit. That extra production can mean the difference between a small farmer making enough profit to support his family and his family not being able to eat. And because about 80 percent of the coffee we drink is grown by people running small coffee-growing businesses, keeping bee populations healthy matters to both producer and consumer.

"There is a whole lot more at stake here than, is my nice espresso in New York going to get more expensive?" Taylor Ricketts, the director of the University of Vermont's Gund Institute for Environment, told NPR. "Climate change is going to threaten this primary livelihood for millions of people in vulnerable communities all over the world."

Bees don't love hot weather — even tropical bees in the places where much of our coffee is grown. When climate change forces temperatures to rise, bees already at the edge of their heat tolerance suffer.

Loss of farmland, reduction in bees spell trouble

bumblebees at flowers
Climate change is doing a number on bees, too. (Photo: Trofimov Denis/Shutterstock)

How will the bee population decline with changes in climate? And how does this decline dovetail with the growing change in coffee-producing areas? (Scientists have projected that by 2050, Latin American countries could lose 88 percent of the land that's suitable for growing coffee, a separate issue from the bees.)

The short answer to those questions is, we don't really know. As a new study points out, "... little is known about the potential for coupled impacts of climate change on pollinators and crops."

Researchers from coffee-growing regions around the world got together to do some computer modeling, trying to suss out what the effects of both bee decline and farmland reduction could mean, taking into consideration that in some places, arable land for coffee could increase, while in others, bee populations could increase.

They found: "In our models, coffee suitability and bee richness each increase (i.e., positive coupling) in 10–22% of future coffee-suitable areas. Diminished coffee suitability and bee richness (i.e., negative coupling), however, occur in 34–51% of other areas. Finally, in 31–33% of the future coffee distribution areas, bee richness decreases and coffee suitability increases."

While the overall picture is negative, the researchers suggest that in some places, smart management of bees and land could offset some of the losses. How? They have some ideas: "Forest conservation and the maintenance of heterogeneous agricultural landscapes, with shade trees, windbreaks, live fences, weed strips, and protection of native plants that provide food resources and nesting sites and materials, are no-regret adaptation strategies," the study's authors write. They add that these types of conservation services also preserve biodiversity in general and provide ecosystem services "... such as water regulation and climate change mitigation."

John Muir once wrote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." The thinking behind that concept plays out once again with your morning cup of coffee. It's connected directly to the people who grow the beans, to the land where the beans grow and to the bees in the area. So ensuring a healthy habitat for those bees (and all the other life) makes sense for everyone.