The true cost of our year-round supermarket appetites

Staggering over to the polythene tunnel to plant some early tomatoes, I found it awash with flowers.

In a runaway growth over winter, the flowering yellow nasturtiums now spread over a room-sized patch of land. A thicket of herbal sage has tripled its growth, racking up spiers of purple flowers.

An old corner of wallflowers is now a bench of golden flowers that squeeze around my old canvas chair. I climbed into it, drugged by the smell of it and pampered by visiting bumblebees.

The flowers had been planted for bees years ago, attracting them to pollinate tomatoes, beans and peas. They had come in the summer as solitary travellers, received individually. Now they were here in occupied dozens, maybe dozens. I sat enchanted, while bright-striped Bombus terrestris groped for velvety wallflowers on a stem that bobbed away.

These were wild bumblebees, free to come and go. But a vast international army of specially bred bumblebees spend short, servile lives cooped up in polythene tunnels and greenhouses to pollinate supermarket crops. After eight weeks of service, the fruit grows on the vines, their busy lives end, and a new colony is reserved.

In commercial “domestication”, more than a million colonies of artificially bred bumblebees are exported worldwide in a trade valued at more than 55 million euros. Some 2,000 are imported into Ireland as more and more tomato and strawberry growers buy colonies from the Netherlands.

fruit orchards

Wild honey bees have been domesticated for thousands of years and their hives are used to pollinate fruit orchards and other crops. They are nectar seekers, but tomato flowers only offer pollen. Bumblebees want pollen and buzz at different frequencies to release it from particular flowers, especially tomatoes. Pollinating the plants by hand would cost €10,000 per hectare.

For crops like strawberries, bumblebees pollinate flowers more than twice as efficiently as honey bees. While the early importation of colonies to Ireland was primarily to serve greenhouse tomatoes, nearly two-thirds now pollinate tunnel strawberries. The plants need up to five visits from bumblebees for full pollination, but they substantially increase strawberry yields and halve misshapen berries.

Two types of parasites have already been found in imported colonies in Ireland and the UK.

A native bumblebee colony has up to 200 workers. At the end of summer, the workers and the old queen die and a new fertilized queen spends the winter in hibernation to start a new colony the following spring.

A commercial colony, with a queen and 50 to 70 workers (enough to pollinate 5,000 plastic tunnel strawberry plants) is caged at the end of the season and allowed to die, with a recommended final period in a freezer to make sure they are all dead. .

artificial breeding

In Europe, where the main private companies export from the Netherlands and Belgium, the bumblebee species of choice for artificial propagation is Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee, common throughout Europe and North Africa, but with important subspecies native.

This is the bee whose great Irish queens are the first to come out in spring. But the colonies’ breeding stock wasn’t bred from the buff-tailed Irish queens, and their workers aren’t always content with captivity, either. Escaping through greenhouse gaps and polytunnel gates, they can travel up to 10 km, outcompeting native bumblebees and bringing new disease risks.

In the 30 years of captive breeding, scientific concern has grown along with industry. Studies in Canada and Japan have shown that imported bumblebees transmit diseases and parasites to native bumblebees. Two types of parasites have already been found in imported colonies in Ireland and the UK.

In the United States, where commercial colonies of Bombus impatiens have been used to pollinate wild blueberries, scientists last year called for tougher federal controls. In Ireland, in 2009, a Department of Agriculture study warned that “unregulated importation [of commercial bumblebees] could pose a serious risk to our native species.”

This is also the concern of environmentalists running the All Ireland Pollinator Scheme. They have written extensive guidelines for commercial colony users, published by the National Biodiversity Data Center.

wild irish species

Uncertainty over the origin of imported Bombus terrestris has led them to fear for the genes of the wild Irish species, long adapted to the flora, crops, landscape and climate of this island. They acknowledge that Dutch companies have started producing colonies of a subspecies native to Britain and Ireland called Bombus terrestris audax. But so far, with a limited market, no Irish domestic producer has emerged to breed them.

So we weaved our way through the rest of the natural world, adapting its useful species to our year-round supermarket appetites. Meanwhile, sitting in my unintended bower of wallflowers, I will enjoy the wild May bumblebees that come and go on their own.

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