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Case study: pollination using bumblebees

The video takes you to a farm in Serbia that uses industrially produced bumblebees to optimise pollination of their tomato crops.
For many crops, pollinators – animals that move pollen from one flower to another to bring about fertilization – are essential to the success of the harvest. But a growing human population, climate change and the use of chemicals are having an impact on biodiversity, and pollinators are declining in number. This has an impact on food production. With fruit and vegetables increasingly in demand, this could be a big problem. One solution is to industrially produce bumblebees to pollinate crops. Bumblebees can transfer large amounts of pollen, work seven days a week in all weather, and are easy and safe to use. This is one way that farmers can improve crop production using a biological method.
In this farm in Serbia, farmers began using industrially produced bumblebees in ‘smart hives’ to optimize pollination of their tomato plants – and were impressed with the results. The smart hives are small and compact but allow more space for the bumblebee colony, meaning the tomato crops can enjoy optimal bumblebee activity, whatever the weather. Pollen quantity has an impact on the success of the crop, but even if the quantity decreases, these bumblebees can adapt their activity to the greenhouse conditions. The hive also has its own controlled microclimate, meaning the bumblebees use less energy for cooling and heating the hive. This leads to excellent results.
The size of the hives and the way they are designed means they are very easy to transport, and the bumblebees are in perfect condition when they arrive on the farm. When the hives are opened, the bumblebees get to work on pollinating the tomato plants right away. These farmers use smart hive bumblebees with several varieties of tomatoes, as well as peppers, aubergines and raspberries, but as the hives work well in greenhouses and open air environments, they can be used wherever fast and efficient pollination is needed. The farmers enjoy increased production, savings in labour costs and improvements in the quality of their crops – all using a natural and sustainable method.

In this step, you’ll discover a real-life example of how beneficial insects are used in a greenhouse – this time, for pollination rather than pest control.

The video takes you to a farm in Serbia that uses industrially produced bumblebees to optimise pollination of their tomato crops.

By the time a tomato reaches your plate, it’s had a long journey. The tomato fruit is formed by fertilisation, when the pollen from another plant meets the ovule of the plant the tomato will grow on. For fertilisation to occur the pollen must reach the flower. This is done by insects in a process called pollination. However, pollinator numbers are in decline due to factors like environmental degradation, urbanisation, and the use of chemical pesticides.

Bumblebees are useful pollinators in greenhouses. Using them saves growers time and manual labour, since crops otherwise have to be pollinated by hand. Natural pollination using bumblebees also improves fertilisation, enhances the quality of the fruit, and generates higher yields.

Since the 1980s, bumblebees have been industrially produced in laboratories. This is done by selecting the best colonies, which are kept in special rooms designed not to disturb the bumblebees’ activity. The bumblebees are checked to ensure they’re disease-free. The queens are then mated in controlled conditions and hibernated until they’re ready to lay eggs and start new colonies. These colonies are placed into hives and sent out to growers.

To find out more about how bumblebees are industrially produced, watch the video in the See Also section below.

We would like to thank Koppert Biological Systems for supplying the information and video materials for this step.

To discuss

  • Pollinator numbers are in decline. What do you think the consequences of this decline might be?
  • What makes bumblebees such good pollinators?
  • What other insects or animals are useful as pollinators? Why are bees commercially produced rather than other types of pollinator?
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Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology

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