Random AsidesScience

Tomatoes, bees, and sex toys.

I’ve been having an “ask an entomologist” session over at the JREF forums, and a question came up about tomatoes and pollination. Mercutio was concerned that with the disappearing honey bees, his tomatoes might not set fruit.

Surprise! Honeybees don’t do much tomato pollination. Tomatoes are descended from ancestors in South America. Originally, they were pollinated by solitary bees. Today’s tomatoes have been bred to self-pollinate, although that doesn’t always happen, and tomatoes won’t self-pollinate at high temperatures.

Tomatoes respond best to something called “buzz pollination“. Bees essentially act as live tuning forks, and cause the pollen to let loose so they can collect that nutritious stuff. Of course, some lands on other parts of the flower (self pollination) and some lands on the bee, who obligingly transfers it to other plants on her body (cross pollination).bzzzzzz

Bumble bees are the most common buzz pollinators, and also some of our small solitary bees. However, where tomatoes are grown with hydroponics, there are no pollinating insects. Glasshouse growers have to use something called an Electric Bee. What’s an electric bee? Why, it’s a happy name for a vibrator on a stick.
In fact, in some places, vibrators are the standard against which domesticated bees are tested. (The process is called manual vibration. Snort!)

So, Merc, the answer to your question is: Your tomatoes should be fine, but if not, just borrow some of your wife’s….household appliances.




Like her electric toothbrush, you pervs!!


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I grew up going to my family's ranch, which has a pool surrounded by beds of rosemary. Skimming the pool surface free of dead and drowning insects (and the occasional mouse/gopher) was always interesting. There were always (and still are) a lot of halictids.

    When the skimmer was full, I'd flick its load onto the concrete away from bather traffic, and soon the bluebelly lizards would venture out to take their pick. Ah, what memories…

  2. For years, we’ve been going into the garden and shaking our tomatoes…wait, you’re talking about something else, aren’t you?

  3. Well, when I shake *my* tomatoes, it usually is Friday night at a dimly lit club. And alcohol is involved. But that’s just me….

  4. Bumblebees are intensively used in agriculture for pollination of tomatoes, cucumbers strawberries and so on.

    There are several companies out there that breed and ship bumblebee colonies commercially for that purpose. It's really big business!

    The colonies are shipped in boxes, which house the nest and a big reservoir of sugar water (since tomatoes for example don't produce nectar). Here is an example (as mentioned before, there are more commercial breeders):

    Several of these boxes are then placed inside the greenhouses and all the farmer has to do is to open a little shutter. The bumblebees will then collect pollen for their brood from the tomato plants and thus pollinate them.

    Nowadays bumblebees are not only used for pollination purposes in greenhouses anymore. More and more hives are now placed outside in the fields as well to pollinate strawberries for example.

  5. @bug_girl: bumblebees aren't gentle and friendly? They always semm so benign to me, so cute Teddybear-like. Sorta the Jack Blacks of the insect-world…

  6. They are–you have to provoke them to get stung.

    But if you have kids, and they pick up and shake the bumble bee house–bumble bees will get upset.

    Orchard mason bees are less likely to sting, and some species are stingless.

    I think if you're going to buy bees, buy the rare bees–bumble bees are nearly everywhere! You don't need to do much to encourage them besides provide habitat.

    Some of the solitary bees are more fussy about their nesting requirements.

    Additionally, not all species of bumble bees <a target="_blank" href="http://homepages.cae.wisc.edu/~oliphant/bees/bombus/distribution.shtml&quot; rel="nofollow">occur in all states–so you don't want to introduce the wrong bee :)

    I'd go with trying to promote local bee populations first, and then considering purchasing native bees in later years, if you don't have success.

  7. My grandfather is a bee-keeper. He regularly drives his colonies all over the country, and leaves them there for a few weeks, in large wooden boxes. Where he takes them depends on what crop is blooming at the time. It also gives him an approximate idea of which type of plant the honey the bees produce is going to be made from.

    It's a symbiotic relationship between farmers and bee-keepers. The farmers get their crops pollinated, the bee-keepers get honey from the bees.

  8. I guess if you can breed them to self polinate then they have less genetic variation? That's totally bizare. Something that farmers would want of course but does it not make the plants more subseptable to disease?

    I have to admit among all the scientific disaplines I know the least on genetics but its the most fascinating.

    I would be highly interested in learning more about the honey bee shortage. I found a few links to some stories about some kind of asian MITES (you'd think asian honey bees would have evolved an emunity) and a claim in the BBC (or the economist) WWW site that 60% of american honey bees are loaned out to the Almond crop.

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