It’s hard to know the truth about anything. At the inception of the internet, we imagined unlimited access to a world of information. The dissemination of knowledge would be boundless, allowing each of us to read and consider multiple viewpoints before drawing our own fact-based conclusions. It sounds like heaven.
It used to be that advertising was the premier influencer of our opinions. Print, radio, and television advertising could get us to buy — or buy into — just about anything. Advertisers learned to appeal to our emotions, and they did it well. If you purchased their brand of car, liquor, makeup, or shoes, you would become sexier, prettier, happier, or wealthier than those who didn’t. Before long, well-heeled merchants and politicians controlled our day-to-day purchasing decisions.
We still contend with endless sales pitches, of course, and advertisers can still buy us. But now, social media influences the tide of opinion. In our modern world, social influencers and their followers tell us how to think, and many of us listen.
When people repeat a statement over and over, it takes on the guise of fact. But relentless repetition doesn’t create truth, nor do millions of followers. Do we believe climate change exists — or not — because of what our favorite movie actor said? Or a congressman? What are their credentials?
Not all thirds are equal
Unfortunately, beekeepers are not immune from social media. Fifteen years ago, before I began writing about bees, I read voraciously. As an agronomist, I already had a pretty good idea about the whole pollination process, but I wanted to know about the nuances.
It didn’t take long to notice that nearly every article I read about bees or pollinators — both popular and peer-reviewed — began with the assertion that bees are responsible for producing one-third of all the food we eat. This was okay at first, but if you read a hundred articles, and 93 start out by saying the same thing, it becomes suspicious. I wondered if it was a lack of creativity or a lack of facts that generated this rhetoric. Or maybe just laziness.
At one point, I decided to stop reading the moment I came to that statement. I even started several books that I put down after the first page. It was a discouraging experiment because I soon had nothing to read.
The statement dissected
I dismissed the statement because it didn’t hang together. It didn’t explain anything back then, and it still doesn’t. Let’s take another look: “Bees are responsible for one third of all the food we eat.”
First, I wondered what they meant by bees. Did they mean honey bees alone? Did they mean all bees? Or perhaps they meant all pollinators? If you try to follow this statement back to its origin, it seems most likely to refer to all animal pollinators, something that is a far cry from honey bees alone.1
Next is the one-third thing. You cannot say a third without defining what you’re measuring because all the thirds in this context are different and not equal to each other. Did they mean a third by weight? A third by volume? (“One out of three bites,” sounds like volume, yes?) Or did they mean a third of our calories or a third of our nutritional requirements? Another possibility is simply a count of food crops, as in “One in three of the crops we eat” or even an estimation of monetary value, as in “One of every three dollars we spend on food.” Can someone explain?
And lastly are the people they refer to in the statement, the “we.” What we? Human societies have wildly different diets, some of which are largely pollinated by insects and others not so much. Does the one-third claim pertain to all people or just some? Did someone derive a massive formula to arrive at a global average? I doubt it. The entire statement is maddeningly meaningless and amounts to nothing more than hype.
Wanna write a book about bees that’s original and refreshing? Simply delete the entire one-third thing and skip to something based on fact. Your credibility will soar.
The colonists and their bees
Speaking of pollination myths, did you ever wonder why the colonists brought honey bees to the New World? Three reasons are commonly cited, but history supports only two. The third is hogwash.
Most references tell us that honey bees arrived in colonial Jamestown in the early 1600s. The records show that several attempts were made to deliver bees to the nascent colony. The first, in 1609, was unsuccessful because the ship was blown off course and landed in Bermuda.2 Later, a successful shipment was sent by the Virginia Company of London and made landfall in 1622 after months at sea. Those bees thrived in spite of a rough passage. By the time another shipment landed in 1638, honey bees were well-established in the coastal mid-Atlantic colonies.3
From what we know of history, the colonists were provided with honey bees so they would have a renewable source of honey and beeswax, “sweetness and light” as author Jonathan Swift so elegantly stated.4 This is not surprising. The colonists knew little about their destination, so they equipped themselves with the things most likely to help them survive.
Without other sources of light, candles would be essential in the long bleak winters that lie ahead. Of course, other potential sources of light were available in the New World — such as whale oil — but they knew not how plentiful whales would be. In addition, their precious few vessels were not designed for whaling, but for long-distance transportation. And with so few people in their small settlement, it would be risky to send men into treacherous waters more often than necessary.
Sweeteners could also be found in the New World if you knew where to look. But the Jamestown colony was too far north for sugar cane and too far south for sugar maples. Even if the colonists were aware of alternative sources, they didn’t have the time or manpower to do more than plant essential crops, hunt, build shelters, and hope for the best. Yet a supply of sugar was necessary for preserving food for the winter months. Honey was their best bet at the time, and even now seems like a wise choice.
So you see, Mr. Swift was right: the colonists needed bees for sweetness and light. But the third commonly listed reason doesn’t make sense. The colonists did not bring honey bees to the New World for pollination. Not a chance, as we will see.
Working in the dark
Not long ago, information on current research was hard to come by. Scientists experimented, examined their findings, and wrote papers just as they do today, but word traveled slowly. Sometimes researchers learned about others working in their field and corresponded, but many individuals more or less toiled in a vacuum with little input from the outside world.
Some of the scientific principles we embrace today haven’t been around that long. Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859, only 162 years ago. Working simultaneously, Gregor Mendel, known as the founder of genetics, published “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” in 1866. Although these two great thinkers worked on different aspects of the same problem at the same time, Darwin was unaware of Mendel’s work, and the two men never communicated.5 It’s fun to imagine how a few quick emails between these two could have accelerated our biological knowledge.
The beekeeper Arthur Dobbs
One hundred years before Darwin and Mendel, another scientist was busily documenting the squirrelly nature of nature. His Excellency Arthur Dobbs lived most of his life in a waterfront castle in Northern Ireland where he was a member of the Irish Parliament. He was a son of royalty who wanted for nothing and spent his youth in Castle Dobbs where his parents entertained prominent Britons, including the clergyman Jonathon Swift.
During his tenure in Parliament, Dobbs acquired a wee patch of land in the Americas — roughly 400,000 acres in North Carolina — and eventually became the seventh governor of that royal colony.
Dobbs was a man of many talents. Besides an abiding interest in nature, he also pursued studies in meteorology, astronomy, religion, botany, farming, and commerce. He was full of energy, too. Just after his 73rd birthday, he married fifteen-year-old Justina Davis, his second bride.
Arthur Dobbs, the scientist
His Excellency made several scientific discoveries and conducted experiments to test his theories. He was the first person to discover and describe the Venus flytrap, which he called a flytrap sensitive. Regarding the plant, he wrote, “Upon anything touching the leaves, or falling between them, they instantly close like a spring trap, and confine any insect or anything that falls between them.” He was also the first to document floral fidelity in honey bees.
But the thing Dobbs is most famous for — aside from lending his name to Fort Dobbs and failing to find a Northwest passage — is a paper he presented to The Royal Society of London in 1750. In his paper, Dobbs presented his theory that insects — of all things! — had something to do with crop yields. He believed that insects, especially bees, were responsible for plant fertility and fruit set.
This was a radical thought for Northern Europeans, who believed that bee collection of nectar was a tax on plants. Farmers believed that nectar was an essential substance for plant health and its removal could damage or even kill the strongest of crops.
Looking back, much irony accompanied those beliefs. It turns out that the ancient Assyrians6 were well aware of insect pollinators and memorialized them in carvings of insects visiting both male and female flowers. As has happened multiple times in world history, the knowledge of ancient cultures was ignored or ridiculed, replaced with “modern ideas” that were wrong. In hindsight, it would be more accurate to say Dobbs rediscovered insect pollination after centuries of scientific suppression.
A curious mind
Arthur was curious by nature and had a scientific mind. Like other landowners and farmers of his time, he had heard that bees could harm plants by draining them of essential fluids, so he designed experiments to see if he could increase yield by netting plants and keeping out the bees. When his carefully protected plants yielded next to nothing, he began to ponder.
A detailed account of Dobbs’ life by a descendant named Susan Taylor Block, described Arthur as a hands-on kind of guy. She writes that he liked to “get down on his hands and knees to peer at vegetation,” and he harbored an insatiable curiosity.7
During his study of bees, Dobbs maintained a lively correspondence with another scientist who also latched onto the idea of insect pollination. Some say the correspondent, René Réaumur, preceded Dobbs in the formulation of his theory but, in any case, Dobbs was the first to present his paper to the Royal Society. Today he gets all the credit for discovering pollination by insects.
Dobbs and Réaumur were pen friends and spent a lot of their correspondence arguing about whether honey bees secreted wax from their mouth (Réaumur) or from their anus (Dobbs). When he examined bee feces, Dobbs believed it was largely composed of wax. Therefore, he reasoned that the tail end of the digestive tract delivered beeswax. Both men were passionate in their beliefs and each believed the other was out to lunch. As we know now, they were both wrong.
Dobbs’ famous paper “Concerning Bees and Their Methods of Gathering Wax and Honey”8 was received politely by the Royal Society, but not much noticed. Many thought he was just plain crazy to suggest plants depended on bees for fruit set. History shows more than a hundred years passed before the idea of plant pollination by insects was regarded as fact and Dobbs’ theory — or at least parts of it — became accepted among growers and beekeepers.
Not everything works
So now you know why the colonists didn’t transport honey bees to North America with pollination on their minds. They were clueless. The period between the first bee introduction in 1622 until Dobbs’ presentation in 1750 was 128 years. You can add another 100 years, give or take, until the theory is generally accepted, which puts you around 1850.
Of little surprise, Dobbs suffered a major stroke soon after his marriage to the fair Justina. His young wife, fondly known as Jessie, nursed him back to health. Nevertheless, he died several years later before he could make a trip back to his homeland.
Justina went on to marry the next royal governor of North Carolina, Abner Nash, with whom she had three children before dying at age 25. Fort Dobbs was abandoned in 1761, the Northwest Passage was never found, and the Venus flytrap is now a threatened species. Still, Arthur Dobbs made memorable contributions to science. He was a remarkable beekeeper, a keen observer of nature, and a prescient pollination biologist.
- Buchmann SL, & Nabhan G P (1996). The Forgotten Pollinators. Island Press.
- Apis Merchantile (2020). “Apis mellifera: The BEE-ginnings Part II.” https://www.apismercantile.com/blogs/bee-blog/apis-mellifera-the-bee-ginnings-part-ii
- Ordal H (2014). This Land of Milk and Honey: How the Honey Bee Shaped America. Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, Inc. https://preservationofhoneybees.org/essays/2014-4h-essays/item/6-hailey-ordal
- Swift J (1704). A Tale of a Tub.
- Fairbanks DJ (2020). “Mendel and Darwin: untangling a persistent enigma.” Heredity 124, 263–273. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-019-0289-9
- Eardley C, Roth D, Clarke J, Buchmann S and Gemmill B. (2006) Pollinators and Pollination: a resource book for policy and practice. African Pollinator Initiative.
- Block ST (1993). “Governor Arthur Dobbs.” mypedigree.weebly.com/gov.arthurdobbs.html
- Grant V (1949). Arthur Dobbs (1750) and the Discovery of the Pollination of Flowers by Insects. Retrieved 11 4, 2021, from https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/bee_lab_gr/11
Honey Bee Suite
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Ancient Assyrians may have understood about pollination, but you know it doesn’t count till a European male discovers it. And so much more factual if he can also be English-speaking and upperclass. #sarcasm
Also, also, isn’t most of what we eat wind-pollinated grains and sugars? Or is that just me?
Yes, most of what we eat is grass. That would include wheat, rice, corn, barley, oats, rye, millet, teff, sorghum, and sugar cane. Yes on the European white males, too. No on the “just you” thing.
Honey bees organize and that’s how they win the competition for scarce resources. Other species could learn a lot about winning from bee hives.
It’s so important to question “dogma” as it is often based on tradition rather than fact. Thank you for this important essay!
As a high-school teacher, I can say with authority that 5 out of 4 high school students do not understand statistics.
Thank you Rusty for this well-presented essay on the work of Arthur Dobbs. I too agree with what Roberta says about how ancient garnered knowledge is re-sifted and presented to us as new by white, European males.
Ah, this was so fascinating, thanks for the write-up. The memeification of science factoids has gotten a bit out of hand—I appreciate this science-based history lesson!
This reminds me of a series of news reports of sea turtles choking to death on latex balloons (helium filled balloons). When I tried to track down the actual facts in these report, I found two sources, that cited each other as the source of the information. There was in fact no actual incident.
As you must know but didn’t mention the one third of all our food statement came from, Agriculture Handbook No. 496 Insect Pollination of cultivated plants by S. E. McGreger 1976. It was quite a broad statement to make as you point out. He does spell it out in a statistical manner that makes sense. If I remember right, years later Dr. Roger Morse had one or more of his grad students verify or update that ARS Handbook No. 496 and came up with pretty much the same one-third. Seems to me, that with all the die-off in the pollinator world we would be hearing more about bad crops due to lack of pollution. Not keeping up with ag news these days maybe we are suffering from a lack of pollination. We need a new study to get this straight, or maybe more self-pollinated crops.
The nectar theft passages reminded me of Dr. Strangelove. The sapping of essence….. https://youtu.be/N1KvgtEnABY
I have also read that the honey was needed for mead, so that there were libations to help with the hard work of colonizing!
What a good point. Yes! I’m sure that’s the case.