Bee and Ant populations; comparison versus Humans

Warren D. Smith, July 2021.

How many bees and ants are there, and how long have they been around? Why do I ask? Bees and ants are known to hold democratic elections, and I want to compare them numerically, as democrats, versus humankind.

First of all, how much of every kind of life is there? Some people measure "mass," some "dry mass," but the former can vary with hydration while the latter term is imprecisely defined. A more precise unit therefore is recommended by Bar-On, Phillip & Milo in their 2018 world biomass census: total mass of whatever species' carbon atoms. They claim (unfortunately with rather large uncertainties for some kinds of life) that, e.g. the total carbon mass of humanity (pop. 7 billion at that time) is 0.06 gigatons, and of their livestock 0.1 gigatons. The wild mammals and birds are only 0.007 and 0.002 gigatons respectively, which demonstrates how completely humanity had already taken over and killed the Natural World by 2018.

Wilson & Hölldobler 2005 claim ants constitute "at least 1/3 of all insect biomass." Termites are the insect that has been counted most carefully due to their economic importance. They are estimated to outmass humanity: Sanderson 1996 counted 0.05 or 0.07 gigatons of carbon in termites, according to 2 different claims about Sanderson both(!) made in Bar-On et al 2018, the latter seeming more valid. If we believe Wilson & Hölldobler's "≥1/3" claim, then that suggests, e.g. based on Bar-On, et al's central estimates for insect mass – and the claim by Nyffeler & Birkhofer 2017 that 400-800 megatonnes of prey are consumed each year by spiders, more than the total mass (287 megatonnes) of humanity as weighed by Walpole et al 2012 – that ants also have mass comparable to humanity. If so, and if the average ant weighs 3 milligrams, then there are perhaps 5×1016 ants.

However, I warn you that various numbers I've seen confidently proclaimed in biology literature about ants, definitely are wrong since they contradict one another. And there are large error bars on many of Bar-On et al's biomass estimates. Exercise caution when reading claims, based on zero cited evidence, such as [Schultz 2000] that on average, ants "monopolize 15-20% of the terrestrial animal biomass, and in tropical regions where ants are especially abundant, they monopolize 25% or more."

The UN FAO (United Nations Food & Agriculture organization) keeps track of many things, including how many domesticated beehives there are in the world. They counted 90999730 during year 2017, i.e. roughly 108 hives. (In the 2019 USA alone: 2669000 hives.) Each such beehive contains, on average, about 20000 bees (more during summer, fewer in winter), for a total domesticated honeybee population of about 2×1012 individuals, which if they each weighed 150 milligrams would total 0.3 megatonnes, i.e. about 1/1000 the mass of humanity. Undomesticated, i.e. wild, bee numbers are far less clear. However Jordan et al 2021 estimated the total economic value of USA bees as pollinators was $34 billion/year in 2012, while Reilly et al 2020 estimated the value of wild pollination services in USA at $1.5 billion/year. This suggests that in agricultural areas (which currently constitute about 50% of the Earth's ice-free land area) wild bees have about 5% of domesticated bee pollination-power, and hence, very roughly, 5% of their mass. In non-agricultural areas, wild bees presumably are nearly 100% of the bees, and probably more numerous than in agricultural areas since agricultural crop monocultures are nutritionally unhealthy for bees. So it is probably safe to estimate that to get the total (wild+domesticated) bee mass, we should multiply the domestic-only mass by something between 1.05 and 3.

Ants are 140-168 Myr old according to sources collected by wikipedia. Bees are 100 Myr old, as was realized after a bee was found trapped in amber that old (Two Studies On Bee Evolution Reveal Surprises, Cornell Univ. press release to Science Daily 14 Dec. 2006). This is pretty new information as of the present date 2021; previously it was thought bees and ants were only about half this old.

In view of both their total tonnage and longetivity, Schultz 2000 called ants "arguably the greatest success story in the history of terrestrial [i.e. non-marine] metazoa." That would have made sense if Schultz had not forgotten that termites are comparably successful.

Insects as democrats

There are exactly two known classes of nonhuman animals with lives affected in a major way by voting in ≥3-candidate elections: bees and ants. Honeybees annually democratically vote to select a new hive location. Certain ants also conduct such a vote if their nest is destroyed. Regard those as independent Darwinian experiments, for bees 100 megayears long comprised of 1016 individual elections. That's over 106× more elections than humankind ever (even computer simulations cannot reach bee numbers!). [Lawless 2012 in a table found there are 519682 elected officials in USA, mostly town and county governments and school districts. So the total number of human elections thoughout all history ought to be <4000 times that, i.e. 2×109, and at least 2×108.] The bees did it during a timespan >103× longer, comprising ≈105× more generations. Even today honeybees exceed 200× human population and run >10× more elections each year than humans – and with those elections closer-linked to each bee-voter's survival chances, than elections matter to almost all human voters. That makes bees an indicator at least 106× more sensitive than humans. Democrats: Ignore bees at your peril.

Similar remarks apply for ants given that they are 140-168 Myr old and outnumber bees >104×.


Y.M.Bar-On, R.Phillips, R.Milo: The biomass distribution on Earth, Proc. Nat'l Acad. Sci.USA 115,25 (June 2018) 6506-6511 & Supplementary Information Appendix.

Alex Jordan, Harland M. Patch, Christina M. Grozinger, Vikas Khanna: Economic Dependence and Vulnerability of United States Agricultural Sector on Insect-Mediated Pollination Service, Environmental Science & Technology (2021).

Jennifer L. Lawless: Becoming a Candidate, Cambridge Univ. Press 2012.

Martin Nyffeler & Klaus Birkhofer: An estimated 400-800 million tons of prey are annually killed by the global spider community, The Science of Nature 104 (2017) Article number 30.

Henning Petersen & Malcolm Luxton: A Comparative Analysis of Soil Fauna Populations and Their Role in Decomposition Processes, Oikos 39,3 (Dec.1982) 288-388.

M.G. Sanderson: Biomass of termites and their emissions of methane and carbon dioxide: A global database, Global Biogeochem. Cycles 10,4 (1996) 543-557.

J.R. Reilly et al. Crop production in the USA is frequently limited by a lack of pollinators, Proc. Royal Society B (2020).

Ted R. Schultz: In Search of Ant Ancestors, Proc. Nat'l Acad. Sci. USA 97,26 (Dec 2000) 14028-14029.

Sarah Catherine Walpole, David Prieto-Merino, Phil Edwards, John Cleland, Gretchen Stevens, Ian Roberts: The weight of nations: an estimation of adult human biomass, BMC Public Health 12 (June 2012) article #439.

C.B.Williams: The Range and Pattern of Insect Abundance, The American Naturalist 94,875 (1960) 137-151.

Edward O. Wilson: Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects, Oldendorf/Luhe, F.R.Germany Ecology Institute 1990.

E.O.Wilson & Bert Hölldobler: The rise of the ants: A phylogenetic and ecological explanation, Proc. Nat'l Acad. Sci. USA 102,21 (May 2005) 7411-7414.

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