Real human bee

Mythical and mystical creatures are cool—especially if they have a human side to them. We are fixated with all of them, from the dangerous, like werewolves, zombies and vampires, to the beings of light and beauty, like fairies, unicorns and elves.

Recently, thanks to movies and TV shows, particularly Games of Thrones, the modern human adult and quasi-adult (or quasi-human?) has become an expert on all kinds of fantasy-fiction beings.

Moving closely with trends in Hollywood sales and a revenues from shitty teen-age books, every one of these creatures—zombies, vampires, satyrs, ghosts, etc.—has enjoyed some sort of celebrity status at some point or another. Every single one has had its moment in the big screen. Every one of them. Except for one. There is one incredible creature that has completely escaped modern popular culture, one that can profoundly shock modern societies, and, interestingly enough, one that is actually real.

This story is one about ironic turns of events, the ever controversial monetary valuation of nature, and the intricate and unexpected role of poverty, and more precisely of economic wealth, in setting the destination of a pretty bumpy ride. This story begins in the apple orchards in rural southwest China, where one can find a community of the little known, but super freaky, bee-men—or as I like to call them, real human bees.

“Un Cuento Chino”

In rural China, apple orchards are abundant. In fact China is the world’s largest apple producer—by far (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2012 China was the largest producer of apples in the word, producing over 37 million tons that year; second in the list was U.S. producing just over 4 million tons).

The most critical step in the production of apples is the pollination of flower blossoms. Pollination is essentially the means by which flowers reproduce. I am not a biologist—by any means—but the process is fairly straight-forward: a fertilized flower will result in a fruit and the fruit will have seeds which will grow to be a baby apple tree. Whatever the case is, the point is that if you are an apple farmer, you make money by selling many apples and therefore you need to produce many apples. To produce many apples, you need to fertilize many flower blossoms in your orchard. To fertilize the flower blossoms you need to pollinate them, and to pollinate the flowers you… how do you pollinate the flowers?

Here is where things get interesting. The answer is: it depends.

The pollination of commercial apples can be done by honey bees: as bees travel from flower to flower in search of nectar they become dusted with pollen; as they visit many flowers they spread the pollen around fertilizing them. In the U.S., this practice the norm. In fact, honey bees are so important for the production of commercial crops like apples, almonds and blueberries, that bee farming is a well-established industry. The general idea is that bees are like tiny livestock, and bee farmers are like ranchers. Bee farmers travel the country moving their hives by truck from plantation to plantation renting the pollination services of their bees. By some accounts, beekeeping in the U.S. is an industry with $600 to $700 million in annual sales in recent years. This is by no means large when compared with other segments of agriculture—for example, the annual value of the U.S. corn crop over the last five years has been between $50 and $80 billion. (For more information see Rucker, Thurman, and Burgett (2015). “Colony collapse and the economic consequences of bee disease: Adaptation to environmental change”)

Alternatively, pollination of apple trees can be done by… you guessed it, the oh-so-much-awaited bee-men. This is how it works: the bee-men climb on a ladder and carefully make their way through the branches to reach a flower; then, they dip a little tiny brush into a little bottle of pollen and paint the flower with the pollen. They repeat this process for every flower in the tree.

Considering that each tree can have hundreds and hundreds of flowers, it seems natural to conclude that hand pollination is stupidly impractical and rather dangerous for the bee-men. Yet, in some villages of southwest-central China, this is exactly how apple pollination is done. But why?

The answer is simple. Pollination is done by hand because of the relative abundance of human bees. In other words, bee-men are more easily found than honey bees in these apple producing villages.

Although simple, this answer is all but satisfactory, and only leads on to a deeper question which is at the root of this story: what is the origin of the human bees?

It turns out that in the mid-1990’s wild bee populations in these Chinese villages started to disappear. Many ecological and biological reasons have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, from rise of bee-harming pathogens and parasites, to lack of adequate bee nutrition due to reduction in available sources of pollen, to habitat destruction, etc. However, the prevailing theory for their disappearance is an economic one: at some point between 1970 and 1990, Chinese apple producers seeking better profits started to heavily spray toxic pesticides on their orchards. Pesticides are great to keep insects away, and by this account, pesticides are great to keep bees away since bees are insects too.

The disappearance of wild honey bees is a rather unfortunate event for an apple farmer as honey bees are a crucial input the production of apples. However, even with wild bees out of reach, Chinese apple farmers could still turn to commercial honey bees to secure pollination services. They could still hire the services of a bee farmer in another province who would bring commercial bee hives to pollinate the apple orchards, just as it is done in the U.S. Yet, this did not happen, and there were two reasons for why it did not happen. One is that bee farmers in other provinces were reluctant to send their bees to orchards that had been heavily sprayed with pesticides. But the more important one is that even if bee farmers were willing to send their bees to these highly toxic orchards, in this region of rural China, human labor was so cheap that hand pollination was actually less costly than renting bees to pollinate crops. In other words, in these apple producing villages, there were plenty of human bees; and human bees outperformed honey bees on two important economic accounts: they were cheaper, and they were not insects (they were… human), thus apple farmers could still apply pesticides and increase fruit yields.

That is how the human bee came to bee. I mean, be.

So far, I’ve told a story of a place in China were apple farmers replaced honey bees and their services with human bees—in some sense this is a story of human dominating nature. With that interpretation I want to turn the narrative of this post to the topic of Ecosystem Services Provision—the center of my research.

Ecosystem Services and the value of nature

Ecosystems provide society with a wide range of services: from reliable flows of clean water to productive soil, carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation, storm surge protection, prevention of soil erosion, among many others—including pollination services.

Over the past decade, environmental economists—together with biologists, ecologists, geographers and other natural scientists—have gone a long way in improving the scientific community’s understanding of how ecosystems provide services and how service provision translates into economic value. Yet, leaving aside any academic criticism over the approaches and assumptions used to study the relation between nature and economics, there is still much public mistrust and resistance to the core idea of assigning monetary value to nature.

Some participants on this conversation compare nature’s services to a mother’s love and emphasize the priceless essence of nature. Under this view, not assigning a value to nature is the same as assigning it infinite value.

Personally, I believe this reasoning is appealing and I doubt any environmental economist would disagree with this notion of pricelessness. I think it is consistent and sound from a philosophical point of view. However, the arguments of this absolutist position break down rather quickly when somebody needs to make a decision concerning a natural resource simply because there are trade-offs inherent to a decision: is a country willing to build a road in the forest in order to connect isolated communities to a more integrated and functioning socio-economic system in order to improve the standard of living of the poor? Well, yes—if the benefits are greater than the costs. But to make that decision, one needs to identify and quantify those costs—which are (1) the forgone ecosystem services that would have been provided by that patch of forest had it not been cleared when the road was built and (2) the pollution that will be generated by motorized traffic transiting these roads once they are built.

Under this notion, ecosystems are valuable if they produce goods and services that are valuable to sustain life in general, human life in particular, and more specifically, modern human societies.

Although this line of though sounds reasonable, there are instances where that logic becomes dangerous, and one of example is the story of human bees. I believe that this story is one that actually challenges the integrity of this “principle of valuation”—the idea that we can accurately value ecosystem services and we can in practice use these measures to advice decision making.

In the human bee’s story, labor markets in rural China were such that farmers were able to neglect the health of the environment. Farmers did no longer depend for their economic viability on the so-called ecosystem services—such as pollination—that nature provided. In some sense, the value of nature was zero.

Here is where the irony comes.

Things are getting better in rural China for rural workers. In fact, the labor market has improved so that workers are now demanding higher wages. Higher labor costs are challenging the long-term viability of hand pollination as an alternative to honey bee pollination. This means that the value of nature is suddenly infinite because there are no alternatives!

So the question becomes, can we really accurately value ecosystem services? Do we know what care about, and does that matter anyway?

I hope you enjoyed this piece, to get the full experience I recommend you listen to the 2011 Drive Soundtrack song “A real hero” by Electric Youth:



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