The buzz about bumblebees

This is not our home crop of tomatoes. We harvested our first fruit last week. Two cherry tomatoes. Perhaps enough to feed our ten Christmas lunch guests if we sectioned them carefully with a Gem razor blade, as I used to do in Dr Gerry Kraft's algal pracs back at University of Melbourne. Then it was seaweeds and their like, rather than the fruit of Solanum lycopersicum.

For a real meal we could do worse that head out to Point Lonsdale for some hydroponic tomato fruit, pollinated by artificial sonication. Big words! Hydroponic sonication is my cobbled together term for buzz pollination of tomato flowers growing with their roots luxuriating in liquid food. Buzz pollination is typically the job of the bumblebee, but here in Australia, and in hydroponically grown tomatoes inside a tent it's the job of a vibrating machine (a term I prefer to vibrator).

I visited a hydroponic glasshouse on the Bellarine Peninsula a few weeks back, guided by Gerry Kraft and his wife Rebecca. The owner of Lonsdale Tomato Farm, Jamie Moran, would like to have a few bumblebees in his greenhouse rather than have to shake his plants mechanically, but that's unlikely to happen. Well, unless the bumblebees that aren't meant to be in Tasmania cross Bass Strait.

Bombus terrestris subspecies audax, aka the bumblebee, incites passion among conservationists, apiarists and tomato growers. The former two passionately don't want it, the latter do.

Here's what the Australian Native Bee Research Centre says. The European Bumblebee was introduced accidentally into Tasmania eleven years ago. Because they are specialist pollinators of many plants in the family Solanaceae, not just tomatoes, they are likely to encourage the setting of seed and therefore dispersal of weeks like horsenettle and buffalo burr. In other families, nasty weeds like gorse, impatiens and weedy rhododendrons are encouraged on their way to fresh fields in other countries (such as New Zealand, where I saw plenty of them). So-called 'sleeper weeds' could become 'feral' according to the bee-keepers.

The apiarists don't want them because bumblebees might compete with commercial honeybees for the nectar of local flowers from eucalypts to clovers. Bumblebees are active at lower temperatures (they love the UK) so may be able to get into these flowers at times when the honeybee is less than enthusiastic. Native bees are likely to be at an even greater competitive disadvantage:

Bigger pollinators, such as birds, might also be displaced and all kinds of unpredictable (or difficult to predict) changes might result in native plants and animals. For example some plants might set more seed, some less, disrupting fragile ecosystems.

The do sting, when provoked, but I didn't find this a problem in London.

The tomato growers, and some others in the horticultural industry, are keen in important bumblebees into Australia deliberately. They would need a fully functioning community of bumblebees, with plenty of foraging males. It's argued by the native bee guys that introducing a couple of the bees from Tasmania would be next to useless due to inbreeding which has already resulted in abnormal males.

The Australian Hydroponic and Greenhouse Association have made applications to import bumblebees into Australia, arguing that the accidental introduction into Tasmania has caused no harm to native flora and fauna. They say that bumblebees are available almost everywhere else in the world and that gives over countries a competitive advantage over Australia. They describe as spurious claims that the bumblebee will be another cane toad or fox. They also argue that they can keep bumblebees within (sealed) glasshouses so that potential environmental impacts won't be an issue anyway.

For now, the bumblebee is not in continental Australia and it seems unlikely the Australian Government will approve this to change. And I should make it clear that Jamie Moran simply remarked in passing the benefit of bumblebees while showing me around his impressive hydroponic system. We didn't discuss their pros and cons.

Perhaps the solution will be a less controversial pollinating insect. There is some research into native blue-banded bees that might be useful for glasshouse pollination. And the 16 November 2013 issue of New Scientist explored the possibility of robotic bees (robobees). OK, maybe that one isn't less controversial.

Meanwhile life goes on, but presumably our tomatoes are a little more expensive, although local residents Rebecca and Gerry Kraft vouch for their superior quality.

Images: The hydroponic tomatoes are from Lonsdale Tomato Farm. My bumblebee is buzz pollinating a boronia growing at Kew Gardens. The gentleman with the dog (Bob) is Gerry Kraft, enthusiastic promoter of Gem razor blades, phycological mentor and bestower of my eponymy


Liz said…
I have been interviewing bee keeepers lately and they are having a hard time anyway. Especially with all the burning of our native forests. The blue banded bees are so spectacular I hope they can pollinate hydroponics.
Introducing new species seems to always bring a host of problems that were not anticipated. Lets look after what we have.
Talking Plants said…
Good advice Liz. Always difficult to predict what will happen when you tinker with natural (or semi-natural) ecosystems.