I am currently in the very last stages of my thesis on the use of commercial bumblebees in the UK tomato industry. Now, whenever I say this to relatives who politely feign interest in my academic endeavours, the response is usually the same: “What on earth is a commercially produced bumblebee?”. The term conjures up Black Mirror-esque visions of tiny, robotic bees—but unfortunately, it’s not quite as cool.
The human population is increasing by 1.18% a year, expected to reach a massive 8.5 billion by 2030. As a result of our ever-growing population, we are more reliant than ever on agriculture. Many staple food crops are at least partially reliant on insect pollination for their growth, and worryingly, there is ample evidence to suggest that a range of important pollinators are undergoing global declines. Pollinator losses have been attributed to a wide range of causes, from habitat fragmentation and pesticides to pathogens and invasive species. Unfortunately, all of these problems seem to be symptoms of an increasingly industrial, globalised society and are unlikely to be easily remedied. As a result, alternative efforts to maintain pollinator populations must be made.
This is where commercially produced bumblebees come in. A queen is taken from a stock population and forced to hibernate by placing her inside a really cold room. Once she is woken, the queen is stimulated to begin colony production. At first, she produced just a few workers—but the colony rapidly grows in size. Once the colonies have reached around 50 workers, they are packaged into a special hive box and shipped across the globe. As tomatoes don’t produce nectar, the hive box contains a tray of sugar solution which will last for the colony’s entire lifetime. This video from Koppert, one of the leading bumblebee producers, gives an overview of all the work goes into ‘growing’ each and every colony. By rearing the bees in a controlled environment, the uncertainty associated with wild populations is removed, ensuring food security of insect-pollinated crops.
The utility of bumblebees in tomato pollination was first realised by a Belgian veterinarian, Dr de Jonghe, in 1985. At that point, all tomato crops were pollinated manually. This process was hugely labour intensive and cost farmers in excess of per hectare per year. Workers had to touch each individual flower with a little vibrating stick which shook the pollen loose, pollinating the plant. Dr de Jonghe realised that bumblebees essentially replicate this action through a process called sonication, in which bumblebees grab onto the flower with their mandibles and vibrate their flight muscles. Pollen is released from the anther, and ta-da! You have pollination.
Although the commercial production of bees is a relatively novel concept, the importation of pollinator colonies isn’t a new practice; most of the range expansion of Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, can be attributed to human movement. However, the use of commercially produced bees has accelerated this process massively; colonies are now being introduced beyond their native ranges on a huge scale. As a result of concerns (see my handy-dandy graphic below if you want more information!) that these non-native species may become invasive and threaten native populations, Natural England recently took measures to restrict the use of non-native bumblebees in the UK. Now, the native buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris audax) is used in order to minimise the threat posed by invasive species.
The utility of commercially produced pollinators in the agricultural industry demonstrates just how important bees are. Without them, it’s predicted we would lose 3-8% of global agricultural production which would have devastating effects for food security around the world. Hopefully, we will never have to rely solely on commercially produced bees for pollination; I have faith that we will make changes to prevent further pollinator declines. Nevertheless, it’s reassuring to know that there are experts out there who are continuously improving the process of commercial rearing.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions—after all, after 25,000 words I’ve got a lot to say about these little guys.