While a honey bee produces only one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, through pollination that same insect fuels our food production by the ton.
In the past few years, though, the appearance of new diseases, pests and agricultural chemicals has been causing major honey bee die-offs. Natural and commercial bee populations alike are plummeting, and pollination capacities are crashing with them.
Ecologists are increasingly trying to alert society to this and other examples of a growing issue—the decline in the services, such as pollination, clean water and air, that natural, intact ecosystems provide to us.
Economists have something to say about this, too: If you want to preserve an essential service provided to us by some aspect of nature, it helps to assign an actual value to that service. That is exactly what beekeeper John Haefeli and others like him are doing.
Haefeli, plaid-clad and camouflage-capped, makes his living off these two-toned insects. His family was among the first migratory beekeepers in Colorado. “I’m fifth generation already,” Haefeli says. “Sort of in a rut, I’d say,” he adds with a wry smile.
Haefeli, who lives in Monte Vista, Colorado, has ridden the ups and downs of the beekeeping industry for over five decades. As such, he knows just how indispensible and undervalued honey bee pollination is. In today’s world it is increasingly important to figure out exactly what those buzzing bugs are worth so their services can be safeguarded for the future.
With the sun glinting through jars of golden honey on the windowsill, Haefeli describes the seasonal cycle of his family business in a rhythmic drawl. He and his bees spend winters in Texas gathering nectar for honey production. When the weather warms they head west to rent their pollinating services to Californian almond farmers.
In order to assure the quality and quantity of their yields in the face of die offs, many American farmers have resorted to renting bees for pollination. For a single acre of almond trees, Haefeli says bee rental can run $300. Multiply that by the size of the large-scale industrial farms that now dominate the American agricultural landscape and the numbers are striking.
An estimated one-third of the entire American diet is dependent on pollinators such as honey bees, according to the National Honey Board. That dependence often is direct, as is the case with apple trees, which bees pollinate. But it can be indirect as well. Consider beef raised on alfalfa—which honey bees also pollinate.
The demand for pollination services is on the rise, according to Mike Hood, a South Carolina state apiarist (bee specialist) and beekeeping professor at Clemson University. Bee colony rental will become an increasingly important and expensive part of modern farming, Hood says, “unless the public can turn that around by setting aside land for natural bee pollination and survival.” After all, Hood points out, wild bees provide their pollination services free of charge.
Colony rental capitalizes on the ecosystem service of pollination. Ecosystem services are defined as the products and processes the environment provides for human well-being. Other examples include water filtration by wetlands, and air purification by trees through carbon storage and oxygen production.
In short, we cannot eat, drink or breathe without ecosystem services.
Their importance increases, too, as the human population and its pressure on the environment continue to swell. The global population is now just shy of 6.9 billion people. And if our current consumption trends continue, we would need an entire second Earth by 2030 to meet our total resource demands, estimates the Global Footprint Network. That’s obviously not going to happen, so something else will have to give.
Ecosystem services have recently become a key talking point in many international summits, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of the Parties held in Japan in October, and the COP 16 climate change conference in Cancun in November and December.
A recurring challenge is the difficulty of quantifying their benefits. One way to calculate and compare the importance of ecosystem services is by giving them monetary value. This is called environmental valuation. The value of honey bee pollination to American agriculture, for example, was most recently estimated by entomologists at Cornell University to be almost $15 billion.
Some environmentalists feel uneasy about assigning economic values to nature, though, arguing that it is inherently wrong to impose our financial structure on the earth’s natural order.
As a professor of environmental philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ben Hale has moderated many a debate on this issue. From his perspective, monetizing nature may be flawed in strictly ethical terms, but there are strong pragmatic reasons for doing so. In order to affect positive environmental change in today’s world, practicality may need to take precedent over philosophy.
For Nicholas Flores, an environmental economist and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, it is simply a matter of acknowledging what ecosystem services are worth.
“We make decisions that are going to affect this stuff,” Flores says. “By ignoring it, we’re implicitly putting a price tag of zero on it.”
Instead of working against financial motives, Flores says it is more realistic to work with them, in attempts to recognize the monetary value of conservation. This approach is based on simple principles of supply and demand. As the availability of natural resources goes down, he says, prices go up.
The value of preserved wilderness, for example, was very low two centuries ago because open land was abundant in the United States. The government actually gave it away. Today, however, open land is harder to come by and therefore more valuable.
Ed Sanders is an environmental technology consultant in Boulder and a strong proponent of monetizing natural resources. “If you don’t monetize them,” he says, “you’re screwed.”
Based on his experience and expertise in the field of business-related environmental economics, Sanders says environmental valuation is a practical and promising means of conserving ecosystem services.
“As natural areas get squeezed down more and more, the value of those services goes up,” Sanders explains. “At some point you reach a crossover point where it’s really more valuable to leave the land in a natural state than to build an artificial infrastructure.”
This was the case with the New York City watershed.
New York City has the nation’s largest unfiltered drinking water system, which was facing water quality issues in the mid 1990s. Instead of constructing a filtration plant, which would have cost the city up to $8 billion and hundreds of millions more in annual operating costs, city policy makers decided to address the issue further upstream.
New York City has since purchased or protected 70,000 acres of land in the watershed through conservation easements. While this land isn’t off-limits to people, there are strict limits on its use and development in order to safeguard its natural water purification capacities.
In the end, New York City spent a mere $1 billion to protect the land and capitalize on its ecosystem services. This was a fraction of the cost of a filtration facility, and still provides the same benefit: clean drinking water.
But calculating the actual value of ecosystem services is sociological as much as mathematical. It is also Ed Morey’s forte. Morey is an economist, consultant and professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in environmental or non-market valuation.
“Non-market valuation simply means trying to estimate people’s preferences,” Morey says, and “typically economists determine preferences and values by observing what people do—their behavior.”
What people choose to buy can say a lot about what they value. Someone may drive further to get to a better fishing spot, for example, or build a house in an area with better air quality. Such behaviors are indicative of what ecosystem services people are willing to pay for, and how much they are willing to pay.
Putting a dollar sign in front of a natural resource or service is no quick fix, though. As Hale points out, “Simply identifying a value in nature doesn’t prescribe any course of action.”
The value of that resource must enter into the market, where sustainable use can become a profitable alternative to its more destructive or polluting counterparts.
Sanders cites the example of a sustainable tourism site he helped establish in Brazil. The operation employs local people, who now have a vested interest in protecting the land from the unsustainable logging and agriculture practices that have destroyed much of the Brazilian rainforest.
Most economists agree that non-market valuation is a powerful tool for small-scale environmental projects like this one, but it is not a planet-wide panacea.
“Is the market going to solve the problem of global warming?” Morey asks. “Probably not.”
Environmental valuation is but one element contributing to what needs to be a much larger and more complex response to today’s pressing environmental issues. Modern conservation must necessarily involve science, statistics, politics and people.
Finding solutions will require innovation, which Morey says is motivated by incentives. “No one’s going to innovate unless they think they can make a profit doing it.”
Again, the question of conservation comes back to economics, which will continue to play a definitive role in the future of ecosystem services, be it water filtration, air purification or pollination.
Until land conservation allows wild honey bee populations to rally their numbers and make a comeback, Haefeli will be busy renting his colonies. His favorite part is breeding the queens. The challenge, he says, is “trying to get a good strain of bees that are resistant but still good producers.”
Haefeli’s approach to honey bee rearing parallels that of conservation. The goal in both cases is finding a sustainable balance between maximizing services and maintaining resilience. In the end, the benefits of land conservation can be both environmental and economic. And in our globalizing world, the best solutions in the future will be both.
Breanna Draxler is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.