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Tomato Pollination With Blue Banded Bees
Dr Anne Dollin
Australian Native Bee Research Centre
Australian greenhouse tomato growers are under increasing pressure to reduce their production costs. Recently the Australian government opened our markets to tomatoes imported from New Zealand and from the Netherlands. Greenhouse tomato growers in these countries use European bumblebees to efficiently pollinate their crops and produce tomatoes cheaply.
Australia has no native bumblebees, although an inbred feral population of the European bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, does occur in Tasmania. So Australian greenhouse tomato growers are currently applying to the Department of Environment and Heritage to import European bumblebees to the Australian mainland. However, conservationists are alarmed about the harm these exotic bees could do to our environment. Could our tomato growers use an Australian native bee to pollinate their crops instead?
Melissa Bell's Research
In Aussie Bee Online Article 2 (2001), we looked at Melissa Bell's trials on keeping native blue banded bees inside a greenhouse at the University of Western Sydney. Melissa found that she could encourage these bees to live happily inside a greenhouse room, to nest in artificial nest blocks and even to develop into adults much earlier than they do out in the wild. However, she needed to find out how well native blue banded bees could pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.
Many Australian greenhouse tomato growers use a vibrating wand called an 'electric bee' to pollinate their crops. (The original design of this wand was based on a blue banded bee!) When this wand is held against a group of fresh tomato flowers, the vibration causes the pollen to fly out of little enclosed chambers in the centre of each flower and land on the receptive female part of the flower.
While using this vibrating wand is an efficient method of pollinating greenhouse tomato flowers, it is very expensive. It takes 60 man hours per week per hectare to pollinate a greenhouse tomato crop. So Melissa designed an experiment to find out if Australian blue banded bees could pollinate a greenhouse tomato crop as efficiently as this commonly used electric vibration tool.
The Pollination Experiment
The blue banded bees had access to all the flowers on the Bee Pollination group plants. However, Melissa tied special pollination bags around the flowers in both of the other groups so that the bees could not touch these flowers. In addition, Melissa vibrated the flowers in the Vibrating Wand group with her vibrating wand for five to ten seconds every second day.
When the resulting tomatoes had matured to the orange/red stage, Melissa harvested them. She measured each tomato's size and weight, and counted the number of seeds inside it. There were 969 tomatoes in the study.
A Good Solution for the Industry
So it would seem that our native blue banded bee could be a very good pollinator for Australian greenhouse tomato crops and help our growers reduce their production costs. How much better it would be to use a native Australian bee for this purpose rather than introducing an exotic bumblebee to the Australian mainland with all the environmental risks it would bring!
A research group led by Dr Katja Hogendoorn of the University of Adelaide is now carrying on with this important research work. With the help of five commercial partners, they are studying the most effective ways to use blue banded bees in commercial greenhouses and how to mass produce these native bees.
The full details of Melissa Bell's groundbreaking study have been published in the following scientific journal:
Author: Anne Dollin
(See Anne Dollin's Google+ profile)
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