Hand pollinating fruit trees in China

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