FROM EDITOR: We happen to know the real Most Interesting Man alive, Kris Fricke - an American apiarist, and founder of Bee Aid International. He teaches beekeeping while traveling for work, literally, around the World. He is currently residing in Australia. We asked him for an opinion on a specific article that - in our editorial first glance was bullshit and clickbait. People on the Web are like bees... they swarm to sugary clickbait and we want to use this opportunity to help both the bees and the people. Read as a fascinating cross-sectional case of how "fake news" spread on the Social Media.
by Kris Fricke
So apparently the article "Why you should ALWAYS put a spoon of sugar in your backyard – before leaving home" has been making the rounds now, advising people to "save the bees" by putting a spoon of sugar syrup out every day, and I'm told it's going a bit viral. Being Liberal asked me for my opinion as someone who has been in the beekeeping industry for nearly twenty years now. My opinion is: this article is full of things that are the opposite of true. I was shocked and appalled that it cited David Attenborough as a source, because... how could such a respected authority be so wrong?
Let's start with that. My first thoughts were, "Did Attenborough even say this?" I dreaded the burden of trying to prove someone didn't say something, which can be hard. But it turned out to be pretty easy to point to this basic point of fraudulence -- the article conveniently links to a Facebook page that "appears to have been removed" if one attempts to follow the link. Googling for his official Facebook page seems to indicate he does not in fact have one, as far as I've been able to tell in ten minutes of investigating (which should be way more than enough to find the official page of a major celebrity, after all). It appears there are several fan-run unofficial pages and of course a plethora of probably-fake accounts claiming to be him each with a few hundred followers. The bottom line is I feel I can confidently say it is a fraudulent attribution to link the claims in this article to David Attenborough.
Now before I continue, let me say people sometimes get really upset when I present facts that seem to indicate bees are neither disappearing nor vital for human existence and they start slinging weirdly conceived ad hominem attacks at me. I love bees, not just honeybees but the oft overlooked thousands of OTHER kinds of bees, and I think we should all be HAPPY they aren't about to disappear, and if they're not vital for our continued existence that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to preserve bee species wherever we can. And my other major passion is helping people in developing countries improve their beekeeping to better their livelihoods (I run Bee Aid International -- beedev.org), which I mention just to nip in the bud your suspicion I'm some kind of cold-hearted troll trying to bring you all down. I just think fake crises and information distracts from real issues. Is that so bad?
Okay so where to start with the false claims in this article. "If all the honeybees disappear, humanity will follow in 4 years" is a quote usually attributed to Einstein. The quote first appears in the historical record when it was used by a striking union of beekeepers in France in 1994. There is no record of Einstein having said this. Many biographers have gone through everything that can be attributed to him in papers or correspondence with a fine toothed comb and if there's no record of him saying such a thing. I think we can very confidently say the phrase was made up by striking beekeepers in 1994 (don't ask me how beekeepers even have a union, it's usually a pretty solitary or small operation kind of thing, but, you know, France). So attributing it instead to Attenborough is just one more occurrence in the rich history of quotes being attributed to famous people on the internet to boost legitimacy.
And not only did neither Einstein or Attenborough make this statement, I have never seen the argument made with any kind of support whatsoever that somehow humanity will collapse (in four years or ever) if honeybees disappear.
Here's a thing: honeybees are not native to the Americas or Australia. People have gotten along fine in these places without honeybees for possibly as long as 40,000 years. Crops native to these continents may benefit from honeybee pollination but absolutely do not depend on it.
Next, let's examine the following statement: "In the last 5 years the bee population has dropped by 1/3,' David Attenborough writes." Voila! It took me probably a minute and a half to go to the official UN Food and Agriculture website, pull up a comparison for the last five years, and, wow, that's a pretty steep UPWARD climb now isn't it? About 80.4 million in 2011 up to 90.5 million in 2016, the most recent year available.
Because I know someone is going to ask, the USA went in that time from around 2.5 million hives to 2.775 million.* I wish I could link you right to the FAO compare-o-tron with the numbers plugged in already, it seem that is not possible but here's the link to the app itself if you want to play with it.
*) And before someone in the comments pulls out the misleading chart of beehives in the US that has been "randomly" started at the high point in 1947 when we were churning out beeswax for the war effort, please, none of us needs that intentionally misleading stuff. The same information goes all the way back to 1901 and isn't so misleading and cherry-picked that way.
Anyway, lets take the statements "*bees are responsible for feeding 90 percent of the world’s population.*" and "*close to a third of the food we eat is pollinated by these insects*"** together.
Turning again to the magic of quick Google search, I can tell you right off the bat that 50% of the world's caloric intake is derived from grains and rice. I shouldn't have to tell you that these wind pollinated crops do not at all depend on insect pollination. If you add in other non-insect-pollinated crops such as potatoes, cassavas, bananas, etc, you have now accounted for 90% of the world's caloric intake. I can tell you that the original authors of that clickbait article we are are debunking now have done an astoundingly good job of getting the facts quite exactly and literally the opposite of correct.
Considering that the contribution of honeybee pollination to the output of a plant is rarely 100% -- other things pollinate, and the increased production from honeybees is, for many of the plants that do benefit, only a 10-40% increase in production. So 10-40% of the 10% remaining after we've eliminated the wind pollinated crops is... apparently 7% according to this bit of economic math. Anecdotally because I can't cite the source and you'll notice unlike some people I try not to say anything I can't cite a source on, this 7% number does seem to be in exact accordance with a number I recall a major honeybee researcher quoting in the American Bee Journal some years back. So it's 7% in the US, a country with a very high relative standard of living and lots of variety of fruits and vegetables consumed. I'm sorry to say for most of the world's population the number is undoubtedly much much much less than that.
To give a little bit of credit as to where the very often quoted "one third of the things you eat" statistic comes from, I believe what that is because if you list the things you could possibly eat alphabetically, one third of them benefit from honeybee pollination. Since there's an extensive variety of fruits, they are disproportionately represented on such a list as compared to their actual prevalence in a diet. But obviously no one is going around eating one of everything in exactly the same proportions, that is weird and it is dumb that people keep suggesting that that's what people do.
Even if the statements have a fraudulent attribution and are backed up by things that are counter-factual, should we nevertheless feed the bees in this manner? No.
I have often found a honeybee on a cold winter day and given it a droplet of sugarwater and watched it appear to become revitalized and return to its hive. Honey/sugar-syrup is like fuel for the bees, both for them to power their flight and to keep themselves warm on a cold day. That said, putting a spoonful out may indeed save a random bee or two, but there's no way it's going to save a whole hive if the hive is running out of food. What could actually happen is when bees come across a quantity of sugar syrup, in feeding on it they could transmit any diseases they may have into the syrup source. This is why beekeepers will feed sugar syrup directly into hives but are generally strongly opposed to anyone "open feeding" bees in their vicinity. There are certain bee diseases (namely foulbrood) which are highly contagious and lethal to bees (poses no threat to humans, calm your horses). So if you provide an "open feeding" opportunity such as a spoon of sugar, maybe its not LIKELY to get a bee with this disease, but it's also not LIKELY to save a whole lot of bees either, so the odds of killing off a whole LOT of bees compared to the unlikelihood of saving a lot of bees means you really probably shouldn't.
So there you have it! A fraudulent attribution citing totally incorrect facts to advise you to do something that is probably a bad idea.
And again, I love bees, recommend you get into beekeeping, look into gardening techniques that favor your native bees (many are ground nesting and that hard mulch you keep putting down really bums them out), buy honey from farmers markets (don't get me started on the amount of fake honey that is wearing totally legitimate looking labels on your grocery store shelves), and do please check out Bee Aid International beedev.org (I've tried my hand at podcasting about teaching beekeeping in Africa too but it's probably a bit amateurish as podcasting goes), and finally, "imagine world bees." ;)