The Comparative Advantage of Bees

2009-05-15

I've been thinking about the decline of the honeybee population after watching a BBC documentary on it; I've decided that it is all the fault of the theory of comparative advantage.

To provide some background. The honey bee population is a massively important insect population; of course, it's important for the production of honey, but a more important function is that of a pollinator. Many of our agricultural crops require pollination to be of use, to produce the fruit or nuts that we eat. Bees do this task as part of their natural life-cycle. But so do many other insects. So why bees? Why not just let it happen, which it will do anyway. The problem is that honey bee is now suffering from massive collapses in it's population numbers‚ÄČ---‚ÄČthis is typified by "Colony Collapse Disorder". At the moment, it's not clear what causes this. The documentary argued that it's a multi-causal disorder, partly as a result of known pathogens (including a mite which jumped a species barrier a while back), potentially as a result of pesticides and then just general stress.

Well, the reason is the law of comparative advantage; this is not an evolutionary theory, as you might think, but an economic one. In short, it's a free market theory which suggests that not only should you pursue profitable work, but that you should pursue the most profitable. Say, for example, a country can profitable produce both shoes and gloves, but that gloves are more profitable, it should just make gloves and then import the shoes for the feet of it's own population. In this way, you get more profit in the end.

Now applied to shoes, this makes sense (although even here it has problems). However, applied to agriculture, it's a much bigger issue; it results in a massive monoculture; huge areas of the US are covered with a single source crop. This is a problem for the bees and, indeed, the local insect life. If you consider the almond harvest in California, all the trees blossom in a two week period. This makes an enormous glut of nectar for the bees but, of course, the rest of the year there's nothing to eat. So, no local bees.

The solution to this is to ship bees into California; the astonishing statistic that the documentary came up with is that the almond trees of California require 80% of the US honey bee population to pollinate. 80% is a truly unbelievable statistic. To achieve this, they ship bees from across the US down to California. Most bees move onto other places later in the season, often being hired out 2 or 3 times. Of course, bringing all the bees into one place is stressful (they have to be shipped), the potential for disease is enormous.

One solution to this, would be to plant as well as almonds, a set of other trees. Oranges maybe, olives perhaps. But the law of comparative advantage essentially makes the economically inviable; it is not enough to make a profit, you have to make the maximum profit. Someone growing oranges would get bought out by an almond grower.

Another solution to this would be to have several different species of insects, as pollinators. While they might still need to all be in one place, at least there would be some species barriers; if it were done carefully, the bees could even be in placed in non-overlapping regions. There's a problem here, however. The law of comparative advantage strikes again; it's not economically viable to husband another species because the domestic honeybee is better, at least until it's colonies started to collapse. The current solution is to import bees from Australia; at the moment, it's not suffering from Colony Collapse, it's still free of a mite infection that has travelled around the rest of the world and has bees spare to export. This can't be a long term solution, though.

So, why do people do it? If law of comparative advantage does not work, why is it that people (unknowingly maybe through the economic system) follow it? The reason is simple; the law of comparative advantage does work; it makes sense to build our agriculture based around a monoculture from an economic standpoint. However, by failing to respect biology, modern business practice is producing a system which is highly efficient in the short term, but is hugely fragile in the long-term; when the system breaks, everyone suffers. In the light of climate change, this has to be even more of a worry; rich and complex ecosystems tend to be more robust to change, simply because they have more species to loose before they collapse. In the past, we have maintained monoculture through a rich diet of pesticides and fertiliser; it's probably past the time when we should start to discover better ways of farming. And a new form of economics to remove the pressures that forced the old system.