Buzzing the blues research update
Bumble bees use vibration to extract nectar, and they’remore effective than honey bees as blueberry pollinators. By Judie Steeves
on’t be surprised if you see people walking up and down rows of blueberries with
electric toothbrushes, vibrating the blueberry flowers.
It’s actually a most effective way to pollinate blueberries.
And, bumble bees use a similar buzzing action, which is needed to pollinate blueberry flowers adequately.
Pollination biologist Elizabeth Elle, associate professor in biology at Simon Fraser University, and her students, use electric toothbrushes and tiny paintbrushes to pollinate control plots in blueberry fields where they literally count the honey bees and bumble bees in the rows during flowering. It’s part of their research into the pollinator community and pollination deficit in highbush blueberries.
Due to their shape, the flowers of the blueberry are not well-loved by honey bees, although Elle notes that the shape of the flowers of some varieties lends itself better to honey bee pollination than that of others. She wonders if blueberry breeders consider the shape of the blueberry flower—as well as flavour, berry size, days to maturity and susceptibility to disease in conducting breeding research—because it’s vital to crop production.
For instance, she says honey bees do like Dukes because they produce big, fat, round flowers which pollinators can get into. The long narrow flowers produced by Bluecrop prevent the honey bees from getting in and their tongues are not long enough to pollinate the flowers. Last year’s research in local blueberry fields showed that 13 per
Simon Fraser University’s Elizabeth Elle and her students use electric toothbrushes and tiny paintbrushes to pollinate blueberry control plots.
cent of Bluecrop flowers produce no fruit unless they are hand pollinated, while most of the Duke flowers do. The work was carried out in 26 fields in the Lower Mainland and continues this year.
With some funding from the B.C. Blueberry Council, Elle and her team will look at two more cultivars this year, Liberty and Draper, to test her hunch about the important role flower shape plays in pollination. The largest portion of funding for her pollination research comes from
10 British Columbia Berry Grower • Summer 2012
the Canadian Pollination Initiative, which involves an analysis of how the landscape around farms influences pollination. She has also applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for other grants.
Pollination of blueberries requires a lot of honey bees to achieve adequate pollination because it’s really a bumble bee job, Elle contends.
“The pollen is inside the anthers and it has to be shaken off the anthers. That’s bumble bee
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