It’s often said that every third bite of food in the human diet relies upon bees. For a Hadza hunter during the peak of honey season, that figure may be an underestimate. For the rest of us, it alludes to the great debt we owe bees for pollination, a largely unheralded service at the heart of our agricultural system. Parsing the numbers to reach “every third bite,” however, can be challenging. Measured by volume, 35 percent of global crop production comes from plants that depend on bees and other pollinators. That’s pretty close to one in three, but doesn’t take into account all the calories we get from meat, seafood, dairy, or eggs. In terms of simple food variety, the ratio looks more like three out of four: over 75 percent of our top 115 crops require or benefit from pollinators. Nutritionists take a different approach, pointing out that pollinator-dependent fruits, vegetables, and nuts provide over 90 percent of our vitamin C, as well as all of our lycopene and the vast majority of our vitamin A, calcium, folic acid, lipids, various antioxidants, and fluoride.
Pollination clearly makes a big impact on our food, but the importance of bees to any particular bite depends on what you’re biting into. Cows and other edible animals can be raised without pollinators, and staples like wheat and rice come from wind-pollinated grasses. If you want to add flavor to your meat, however, or spread something tasty onto your bread, things quickly get more complicated.
Rather than focusing on how bees impact food quantity, it might be more revealing to examine their effect on quality. We could still find things to eat in a world without bees, but what would our food be like? Visiting a produce aisle or farmers market would certainly be different, the selection reduced from colorful profusion to a few grains, a nut or two, and oddball clones like bananas. (Even reliable self-pollinators like peas or aubergine were originally developed from bee-pollinated strains.) But that’s the obvious change— less choice in fruits and vegetables. To really see the pervasiveness of bees in our food supply, I decided to look for them someplace totally unexpected and unlikely, in a meal served over two and a half million times every day in more than one hundred countries around the world. Its ingredients are straightforward and at first glance seem far removed from the influence of buzzing insects. I know this because, like millions of other people across North America, I happen to be able to sing the recipe.
Introduced at a Pennsylvania McDonald’s franchise in 1967, the Big Mac sandwich was added to menus nationally a few years later. But it didn’t become a sensation until 1975, when the company debuted one of the most successful advertising jingles of all time: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions—on a sesame seed bun!” For a limited time, customers who could blurt out the whole phrase in less than three seconds were given the burger for free. Though I hadn’t eaten one since high school, I remembered the flavour well and began to wonder what, if anything, bees had to do with it.
For those who’ve never had one, a Big Mac sandwich comes with three layers of bun and two layers of meat, all gooped up with sauce and onions. The pickles lie below the top meat patty, and the cheese goes underneath the lower one, where it melts slightly and droops down over the bottommost section of bun. Handfuls of shredded lettuce and chopped onions get sprinkled in with the sauce, tucked underneath each meat patty. Armed with tweezers and a hand lens, I began disassembling this construction, layer by layer, and removing any ingredients that wouldn’t be available without the assistance of bees. (For reference purposes, I’d also brought along a detailed list of ingredients and nutritional information printed from the McDonald’s corporate website.) Here are my results, in the order laid down by that famous advertisement.
The two all-beef patties could stay. McDonald’s sources its meat from several major distributors that, in turn, buy from thousands of farms and cattle ranches. Some of those cows probably did nibble on a bit of bee-pollinated alfalfa or clover, and feedlots have been known to fatten up their charges with all manner of food-industry cast-offs, from surplus ice cream sprinkles and gummy worms to bee-pollinated cherry juice and fruit fillings. But with few exceptions, the vast majority of a beef cow’s diet comes from wind-pollinated grasses and grains. In terms of seasoning, McDonald’s adds salt to their meat, which is fine, but they also sprinkle it with pepper, which raised the first potential red flag.
Black pepper comes to us from a tropical vine in the genus Piper, native to southern India. Stingless bees visit its flowers regularly, but many pepper varieties are self-fertile, and some experiments suggest that wind, or even the jostling of raindrops, can distribute enough pollen to set a good crop. Since the flecks were too small to remove anyway, I decided the pepper could remain.
Not so, the special sauce. A variant of Thousand Island dressing, this creamy, pinkish condiment includes a sweet pickle relish made from bee-pollinated cucumbers, as well as a powdered form of onion, a bulb crop that requires bees for seed production and breeding new varieties. The sauce gets its color from paprika, a bee-pollinated pepper, and turmeric, from the root of a bee-pollinated herb in the ginger family. Its creaminess comes from either soybean oil or canola oil. While soybeans can self-pollinate, the assistance of bees improves their yield by anywhere from 15 to 50 percent. Canola—a trade name for field mustard—also depends on bees for healthy yields, as well as for the production of viable seed. Without bees, then, the only things left in the sauce would have been corn syrup, egg yolks, preservatives, and minor ingredients with names like “propylene glycol alginate” (a thickener derived from kelp). In removing the dollops of special sauce, I ended up scraping off most of the lettuce, too, which was probably just as well. Though we only eat its leaves, and the plant can produce seed from self-pollination, sweat bees and other species do visit lettuce flowers, improving fertilization rates dramatically and transporting pollen between plants as far as 130 feet (40 meters) apart.
What’s more, the crispy lettuce preferred by McDonald’s would never have arisen without the assistance of bees. Famed seed man Washington Atlee Burpee developed the “iceberg” lettuce variety in the early 1890s, during a series of open-pollinated trials at his farm in Pennsylvania. As another product of cows, the slice of cheese on the Big Mac at first appeared to be a safe, bee-free bet. But while beef cattle eat mostly grass and grains, a bit of research told me that dairy cows scarf up the vast majority of the world’s alfalfa, which I knew from experience depended on alkali bees and leafcutters. With its high protein and mineral content, alfalfa makes ideal fodder for milk production, and industry guidelines suggest daily rations of fourteen to sixteen pounds of the stuff for every lactating member of a herd. Those cows could of course survive on grass alone, but the resulting dairy products would be less plentiful and more costly, and might not find a place on an inexpensive fast-food burger. The point was debatable, but alfalfa wasn’t the only way that bees impacted the cheese slice. It also included an emulsifier derived from soybeans, and it got its distinctive yellow color from the bright seeds of annatto, a tropical tree pollinated by various South American bumblebees. I therefore peeled it off, as well as the more obviously bee-related pickles and onions.
That left only the bun, for which my information from McDonald’s listed fifteen ingredients in addition to wheat flour. Like the flour, the other ingredients were mostly bee-free, or had simple bee-free replacements, with the exception of the sesame seeds. As one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, sesame was selectively bred long ago to produce self-fertile varieties. No one has studied its bi ology in cultivation, but photographs of its showy, zygomorphic flowers leave no doubt that it began life like its wild relations, pollinated almost exclusively by bees. Using the tweezers, and with more than a few curious glances from the family at the next table, I removed all 243 sesame seeds from the top of the bun and put them in the discard pile.
Deprived of its bee ingredients, my Big Mac now looked rather sad and unappetizing. In this form, it’s hard to imagine it would ever have become the world’s most popular burger. Certainly, the advertising slogan wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy: “Two all-beef patties, bun.”
Like the Big Mac, almost any meal can be deconstructed and examined for the influence of bees. Try it, and you’ll learn what I learned: yes, we could still eat in a world deprived of its primary pollinators, but eating would be extremely dull (and not very nutritious). As I picked at the remains of my lunch, I realized I couldn’t even console myself with an order of french fries. McDonald’s uses a potato called the Russet Burbank, developed from the seeds of an open-pollinated Early Rose variety by the celebrated plant breeder Luther Burbank (Washington Atlee Burpee’s cousin).
In the end, I did with my Big Mac what we would all have to do in a bee-free world: I ate what I could.
Want to be updated when there is Science Focus news?
Thanks! Our best wishes for a productive day.