bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Vanilla, the one-bee wonder?

Vanilla, too often a pseudonym for bland, is anything but. It's a highly complex spice (with a mysterious pollination story) that is often replaced in mass food production by its decidedly poorer (but cheaper) relative, vanillin.

It's often claimed that an indigenous Mexico (of the genus Melipona) bee did the pollination duties, but it is now hand-pollinated in different parts of the globe.
The orchid that produces the pods is something of a diva, making vanilla one of the world's most labor-intensive crops. The finicky plant likes damp heat, steady rainfall, and a delicate balance of sunshine and shade. It takes its time—around two to three years—to produce an odorless, pale yellow flower that, unless pollinated, dies within hours. Pollination requires artificial insemination, a manual transfer of pollen from the male anther to the female stigma. (In Mexico, where vanilla originated, an indigenous bee pollinated the flowers; vanilla could not be grown elsewhere until a slave boy on the island of Reunion discovered how to pollinate the orchid in 1841.) The seed pods, like human children, take nine months to develop. But the green, string-beanlike pods become dark brown and fragrant only after a curing process that takes several months, a kind of spa treatment for vanilla beans.
You can read more of the fascinating article from Slate here.

However, another source says of the pollinators:

The reference occurs repeatedly in the literature that in its native Mexico the flowers of vanilla are pollinated by small bees of the genus Melipona and also by hummingbirds (Ridley 1912*) ... but there is no experimental proof that they are actually effective pollinators. Mention is made by Childers et al. (1959 p. 477), that “The first effort made toward solving the (pollination) problem was to introduce bees of the genus Melipona from Mexico, but they did not thrive. After this failure a mechanical means of pollination was tried.” Then Albius, in 1841, discovered the practical method (Childers et al. 1959) of using a small splinter of wood or a grass stem to lift the rostellum or flap out of the way so that the overhanging anther can be pressed against the stigma to effect self-pollination.

Now, practically all vanilla is produced by hand pollination, which accounts for 40 percent of the total labor cost in vanilla production (Gregory et al. 1967).

... It would appear logical that if nectar is secreted, as indicated by Correll (1953), honey bee colonies could be amassed in the area when desired, and the workers could be “forced” to visit the flowers. The relative cost of a high concentration of honey bee colonies as compared to the cost of human labor, would make such exploitation of honey bees highly worthwhile investigating. The reference by DeVarigny (1894) that Cuban bees, whether indigenous or naturalized European bees, were pollinating vanilla in Cuba indicates that bees could be used satisfactorily.


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