A Curious Beekeeper Travels Through China Part VI: Pollination by Hand and Bee

Beewriting ———-Published in The American Bee Journal Vol 152, no. 12 December 2013

If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” --- ????

This sensational quote circulated through the media a few years ago. I am frequently assualted by it after telling people I'm a beekeeper and my response is usually this; the idea is not based on fact, Einstein was a physicist, not an entomologist and this quote surfaced without any way of verifying it sometime in the 1990s, long after his death. Keith Delaplane wrote a well-worded piecei debunking the myth of the quote (as well as the problematic statistic that 1/3 of our food supply is pollinated by bees) while also strengthening the case for our need of honey bees. Perhaps honey bees are not responsible for something as melodramatic as the survival of humanity, but they do vastly improve our quality of life.

The quote “Money makes the world go round” would be more appropriate when speaking of farming and commercial pollination. It's easy to see this in the American beekeeper-grower relationship and its no less evident in the Sichuan Province of China, where the hand pollination of fruit trees has become standard practice for the past twenty years. With the rise of Colony Collapse Disorder and fear of bee extinction, this area of the world has recently received more attention by the media. Filmmakers are fond of showing this pesticide-drenched land where all the bees have died and the farmers are forced to undertake intensive, time-consuming labor to produce fruit. Putting this next to images of the vast California almond orchards is the director's dream: the flawed present next to a dystopic future if things don't drastically change.

Even more recently, a websiteii for a fake company named “BeABee” appeared, on which a poorly produced video promotes an investment opportunity: to “get in on the ground floor” of human pollination which will soon be a $16 billion industry. It rehashes the frightening statistics that a third of our bees died this year, a third of our food depends on pollination and that people are actually pollinating crops by hand in China. Any further clicks on the show that BeABee is not a real company, but it advises us: “it could be one day.” The website was created by a honey company working with an advertising agency and asks viewers to donate money to the Xerxes society, plant trees and frequent their website. While noble in aim, it's another bee advocate using sensationalism and trickery to grab attention (it seems to me for their own company as much as the issue).

But, like the psuedo-Einstien quote above, hand pollination in China not quite as straight forward as it is portrayed. In May I traveled to Maoxian county in the Sichuan province where I met Dr. Ya Tang, an ecologist based at the University of Sichuan, who has been keeping an eye on fruit pollination in this area for the past fifteen years. Dr. Tang was irked at being misquoted on hand pollination in a recent documentary (though he speaks perfect English, the filmmakers asked him to speak in Chinese and then wrote in subtitles with slightly different information). He wished to inform me straight away: “Hand pollination in Sichuan is 100% an economic issue.”

China is one of the leading pear and apple producers in the world and Maoxian county in Sichuan is a major fruit growing region. Throughout the Chinese industry hand-pollination has been a common practice. In some other parts of Asia, specifically the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, the concept of pollination isn't understood, but in China the farmers are well aware of the significance of ensuring pollination of apple flowers for a proper crop yield. Orchard owners collect and process the flowers themselves then hire laborers to dust the flowers using feathers attached to a long bamboo pole. Pollination has to be accomplished within five days of blossoming and a person can pollinate 5-10 trees a day, depending on the size of the treesiii.

But, as many people might ask, why not use bees? Firstly, farmland has been increased to the detriment of natural forage and habitat for native pollinators and wild bees, especially in the lower, more populated valleys. Secondly, the apple orchards do not have enough pollinizers to allow for adequate cross-pollination. Many of these fruit trees are self-sterile and require cross-pollinization from a compatible variety. It is recommended that 25-33% of trees in an orchard need to be pollinizers to ensure a satisfactory crop, but in Maoxian county most orchards are small, only 20-100 trees, and the farmers don't want to waste their land on trees that do not produce any fruit. Thirdly, the area has suffered through four decades of intensive pesticide sprays with farmers dousing their trees 8-10 times per season. Agricultural extension work for fruit growers is rare and most orchardists are uneducated. When they rely on a crop like apples for their livelihood, they would rather overspray to ensure its success. This practice has both discouraged beekeepers from putting their bees near orchards and been harmful to the native pollinators. The local government once tried to reintroduce beekeeping to the area but it was not a pleasant experience for the beekeepers, who ended up losing many colonies due to heavy pesticide use and were not compensated.

The practice of hand pollination began in the late 1980s. Though it required much more labor, the farmers found hand pollinated trees produced more fruit, even causing tree branches to buckle under the weight. The practice hit it's peak in the 1990s but then began to decline in the 2000s. This was mainly because of the drastic socioeconomic changes that have occurred in China during the past fifteen years.

In 2001, a survey showed 100% of the apples in Maoxian were hand-pollinated and the farmers paid workers only ~$2 per person per dayiv. With relatively the high price of apples at this time, this practice was economically feasible. But the following years saw a decrease in market prices for Maoxian apples and the construction boom began to draw people towards lucrative jobs in the city. Twenty years ago many people lived in the rural areas, but in a few short years the surplus labor dwindled to almost none. In 2011 farmers paid human pollinators $12-19 a day, wages much too high for the price of the applesv. Instead the Maoxian farmers have replaced the apple trees with plums, walnuts, loquats and vegetables; crops which do not require pollination and bring in much more profit. Currently in plums are the main fruit tree present in Maoxian and apple trees only exist where farmers are unable to find suitable alternative options or if they live near forested areas. While agriculture is extensive lower in the valley, more natural vegetation is preserved higher in the mountains and pollinators are abundant. The beekeepers of the area also spend their time in higher altitudes, away from pesticide use.

But as the price of apples has decreased, so has the excessive spraying. As apples are no longer the main source of income, it is not worth the cost of the chemicals and this has allowed both native pollinators and honey bees to make a slight recovery. Extension work in the area is still limited because the Chinese government is not concerned with “cash crops” like fruit trees. They don't want to invest time and money in education when the whim of consumer taste will change in a few years causing the farmers to plant something new. Instead the Chinese government focuses its research and extension work on cereal crops. Even for Dr. Ya Tang, who is an ecologist, this Maoxian situation is a side project from his main research, which is improving the efficacy of growing sorghum and other grains used in a popular kind of Chinese liquor.

Something much different is taking place around Beijing in northeastern China. A few weeks after traveling through Maoxian county I visited a facility in Shunyi district, about 45 minute drive outside of Beijing city. Until recently, like everywhere in China, no structure existed for pollination rental fees. The farmers didn't want to pay money for this uncertain service and sprayed their crops often, while beekeepers didn't want to suffer colony deaths and wished to focus on production. But here the local beekeeping government, headed up by Jinzu Liu (who I wrote about in the second part of this series), has been working hard on promoting pollination rental services to local farmers.

There is a strong demand for pollination, Mr. Liu told me. Take the watermelon, which he said has a 40% higher sugar content when it is pollinated and can sell for more money. Formerly Beijing's watermelons were pollinated by hand in greenhouses, which required much labor and decreased the quality of production because the plants were frequently stepped on by workers. He also said the sugar content of the melon is unequal if hand pollinated and they are forced to use a plant hormone. With the bees no hormone is needed and the sugar content is equal. Theoretically, it's a win-win situation.

Before 2006 any pollination rental service was expensive and unorganized, but Mr. Liu began this program to benefit the beekeepers and make agriculture more efficient. We had this conversation in a brand new pollination rental facility which would have its opening ceremony in a few weeks. Here, and 11 other places around Beijing, they kept A. mellifera, A. cerana, bumblebees and leaf cutter bees for farmers to rent. In the next week they were due to get their first shipment of bumblebees for greenhouse vegetables.

This facility acted as a base for around 1000 hives of A. mellifera. When the time for pollination arrives, the 8-frame colonies are split into mini hives for pollination service which “significantly reduces the price for the farmer,” as Mr. Liu said. Two frames of brood and one honey are put in a small, cardboard nuc, with the purpose of the brood to stimulate the bees into collecting pollen. These nucs are easier to transport, provide a population of bees that matches the area of the greenhouse and do not cause “overpopulation” which will decrease production. One frame of honey will provide enough food for the greenhouse period and if sugar syrup is added the colony's population will increase. Each queenless nuc is able to adequately pollinate 350-500 square meters. When the pollination has finished, they combine the small hives into 8-frame colonies and give them a new queen.

It costs ~$45 to rent an A. mellifera hive five months for strawberry population, while watermelon only needs ten days. They do not lend bumblebees but instead sell a hive of one hundred bees for ~$45 which can pollinate 600 square meters. They also lend hives of A. cerana, a more industrious bee that can work at as low as 8° C, while mellifera will only fly at 11° C. When I asked about typical greenhouse pollination issues – like bees finding their way back to the hive or getting caught in the corners – I was told simply that they have overcome all technical problems.

Part of this program has included the education of local farmers on the importance of pollination and how and when to spray pesticides to avoid poisoning the bees. They hold trainings for beekeepers to help them with preparing their hives for pollination services. At the administrative level, Mr. Liu and his team are working on the pollination standards, like the time period bees should remain in a greenhouse, number of bees needed for each crop and how to ensure the safety of bees during pollination.

Though this program is still in its infancy in Beijing, their goal is for this system to spread throughout the nation. Due to economics, hand pollination is a dying practice and farmers will have to turn to cheaper labor – the honey bee. With enough education to the fruit growers on the use of pesticides, the beekeepers will be able to take advantage of the pollen and nectar sources, or just the money from pollination contracts. Overall, once put in place, it will be a win-win situation.


iiiPartap, U. and Ya, T. The Human Pollinators of Fruit Crops in Maoxian County, Sichuan China. (2012) Mountain Research and Development, 32(2): 176-186

ivPartap, U. and Ya, T. (2012)

vPartap, U. and Ya, T. (2012)

2012 William Blomstedt All Rights Reserved