Hand pollinating fruit trees in China

Malus domestica

Apple blossomMarkus Imhoof traveled around the world four times to make his wonderful film ‘More Than Honey’.  In China we saw pollen being collected from apple trees and transported hundreds of miles in little packets, to be sold for hand pollination.

Every year in the apple valley of Maoxian, Schezuan province, pollinating each flower with a brush or cottonbud dipped in pollen from a packet, employs hundreds of workers.  It’s an intense time as blossoms have to be pollinated within five days.

Apples are a main crop in the area but yields have been declining.  Reduced rates of pollination (and subsequent fruit development) are due to heavy pesticide use on the apple trees, decreasing habitats for pollinators and too few ‘pollinizers’.  Pollinizers are required because the commercial varieties of apple are self-sterile and require cross-pollination from a compatible variety.  The pollinizers are less productive themselves so recommended numbers may not have been planted (10% instead of 25-30%).  But the main reason that nature can no longer provide this time-consuming service is forty years of pesticide application.

The cost of labour has increased tenfold over the past decade with urban wages attracting country folk so hand pollination is less viable economically and farmers are looking at replacing their apples with other crops such as plums, loquat and walnuts.

Hand pollination of entire fruit orchards is a portent of farming if we don’t look after our pollinating insects but stopping pesticides and reintroducing habitat for wild pollinators doesn’t appear to have been considered as the answer here.  Instead, grub up the fruit trees and switch crops.  Does this imply that apples cannot be grown commercially without pesticides?  Is this conflict between ecology and economy reconcilable?  For our long-term food security we can only hope that it is.

Film : More Than Honey

Hand pollinating apples in China – academic paper giving an update

Dave Goulson on sustainable food production

Hand pollination of pears in China

5 Responses to “Hand pollinating fruit trees in China”

  1. Andre on

    ah, yes, let’s just gloss gently over the fact that china is dumping millions upon millions of gallons of insecticide to protect it’s famous pear trees, while beekeepers keep their colonies away from the affected areas. The problem is that your saturating the earth with these insecticides that kill long after … effectively killing bees there, and downstream. when there are no bees.. we’ll wonder why we allowed and accepted the current practice…

  2. admin on

    I think you may have misunderstood – the intention wasn’t to gloss over insecticide use, my position is firmly against it, so it wouldn’t be me “saturating the earth” with them.

  3. Peg on

    Here is the problem with that article you linked. It is speaking about 1 type of pear that has specific pollination needs. That is not why most of the fruits, especially apple trees, are being hand pollinated.

    Prior to the 80’s when hand pollination began, the wild bees and pollinators were killed because of the insecticides. Honey bee keeping began but farmers are unwilling to bring their honeybees into farms that use heavy pesticides.
    There is a severe lack of education among farmers all over Asia especially who are not aware that insecticides were responsible for killing the pollinators.
    Here is a much more extensive study that covers a much larger area of fruit orchards in the same province.
    It’s important not to mislead people.
    The reason fruits in China are hand pollinated is because insecticides and mites killed the pollinators. There is one variety of pear that needs to be hand pollinated, but that is just one of dozens of varieties of fruits that do not need to be hand pollinated but are because of the death of the bees.

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