Pollinators are important for the production of ~75% of the world’s leading crops, but honeybees are not the only insects responsible for providing these services.
The vanilla orchid can only be pollinated by a specific genus of solitary bee. Theobroma cacoa – the source of chocolate – is only pollinated by a tiny fly, and papaya flowers are pollinated by nocturnal sphinx moths. Bumblebees and solitary bees are also important for the production of a variety of other fruits and vegetables - squash and melons, tomatoes, blueberries, peppers, almonds, passion fruit, and brazil nuts, just to name a few.
If honeybees disappeared, food production would certainly suffer, but not all hope would be lost. Because the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is native to Europe and North Africa, many of the plant species that we now use as food crops did not evolve to depend on honeybees.
Although we still have much to learn about managing other types of bees, it is likely that, at least for some crops, alternative pollinators would be suitable replacements or even superior to honeybees. There are over 30,000 species of bees, with about 4,000 native to the United States alone, and a few species have already proven to be over 100 times as effective as honeybees.
So what would happen if we lost all pollinators?
Believe it or not, most of our food calories come from plants that don’t require animal pollination. Cereal crops like corn, wheat, and rice are wind pollinated. Many crops also come from non-reproductive plant parts like roots, stems, or leaves. Potatoes, carrots, beets, celery, broccoli, spinach, and cabbage are all examples of vegetables that can be produced without pollination. In these crops, pollination is only important for the production of seed for planting the next years crop.
Some crop types would be particularly sensitive to pollinator extinction. These plants are typically those that can’t self-pollinate and/or that require specific pollinators. Fruits like tomato, avocado, peach, coconut, mango, durian, and some vegetables fall into this category.
However, the largest effects of pollinator loss could be reflected in the production of coffee and chocolate, so there may be a reason to panic after all!