Although they might be small, bees are some of the world’s most important insects. In the U.S. alone, bees are responsible for pollinating 90 percent of agricultural crops, meaning without bees, we would in big trouble.

Given their critical role in pollination, bees play a major part in ensuring nutritional health for humans. While this might have been contemplated in the past, researchers from the University of Vermont and Harvard University set out to examine the extent to which pollinator populations affect human nutrition. They looked into four developing countries across the world and connected the amount of food people consume to pollination requirements need from bees to meet their nutritional needs.

The result of their study was rather foreboding; as pollinator populations decreased so did human health.

University of Vermont scientist, Taylor Ricketts, explains to Environmental News Network, “The take-home is: pollinator declines can really matter to human health, with quite scary numbers for vitamin A deficiencies, for example, which can lead to blindness and increase death rates for some diseases, including malaria.”

In developing countries where people get the majority of their nutrients from the food they eat, having a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains is essential. Looking into what people in these four areas were eating and considering how this translates into their nutritional needs, researchers were able to determine how a loss of bees would impact the availability of certain important diet staples. What they found was that when pollinator populations were unable to meet the requirements necessary to produce an ample supply of food, malnutrition followed. Researchers note that vitamin and mineral deficiencies associated with not getting enough food is estimated to impact one in four people, globally.

In the U.S., we have seen a sharp decline in bee populations due to colony collapse disorder, which has been linked to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on the crops bees pollinate. However, the bees aren’t the only group of pollinators that are in decline. Bats and butterflies are also threatened by an influx of disease, habitat loss and climate change.

As the ecosystems that foster thriving pollinator populations change, these species struggle to survive. Given the important connection between pollinators and our own health, we need to focus on protecting the environment where these pollinators live in order to avoid collapse.

“Ecosystem damage can damage human health,” Ricketts says, “so conservation can be thought of as an investment in public health.”

Save the bees, save the world. Or at least it’s a good place to start.

Image source: Jack Wolf/Flickr