The large and extremely furry bumblebees lived in the wild for thousands of years before being captured and domesticated by humans. Bumblebees, with their long tongues, have the ability to pollinate a greater variety of flower types than shorter-tongued honeybees. The potential value of bumblebees as pollinators has been known for a long time. However, it was not until the late 1800’s when researchers started to think about using bumblebees for an agricultural advantage. In 1885 and later in 1905, hundreds of bumblebees were caught in the wild and introduced into New Zealand as an effort to improve the country’s production of red clover seed.1

A researcher by the name of Sladen wrote a book entitled The Humble-bee in 1912. He discussed the topic of bumblebee domestication and noted some problems surrounding it, such as mating and hibernation.2 Since then many professional biologists and naturalists, mainly in Europe and North America, have studied the bumblebee and its compatibility for domestication. Attempts to domesticate the bumblebee in the early part of 20th century included releasing a colony into a field and leaving it alone, to either forage in the field's crop, or wildflowers nearby. It was realized that colony initiation was one of the largest problems to be solved, and something that needed to be controlled if bumblebees were to be reared for pollination.

Queens who had just emerged from hibernation, were collected from the wild and were put into cages or greenhouses furnished with suitable food plants and nesting boxes. The queen bumblebees actually adopted and accepted this new environment and started to produce colonies. With this result, bee nesting boxes were then brought out and placed in fields.3 Bumblebees have poor memorization abilities, which allows them to quickly accept new environments, such as a greenhouse, or a new location in a field,4 making them ideal for commercial pollination.

The problem of rearing bumblebees in captivity was solved in 1961 by Swiss researcher Horber, who was the first to find a rearing system for the bumblebees. Queen bumblebees are each put into individual containers. Horber used aluminum tubes, filled with damp vermiculite, damp decaying wood, or damp paper. The containers are kept at a low temperature of 1 degree Celsius, putting the bees into hibernation. After a short period of hibernation the queens are then induced to start a colony by being put into an artificial environment of heightened temperature and light intensity. Pollen, which is high in protein, collected by honeybees, is used to rear the bumblebees in this artificial environment.5

The 1970's saw the domestication of bumblebees become a feasible reality, and with this milestone behind, people began to entertain thoughts of commercial rearing. In 1985, Belgian researcher Dr. de Jonghe discovered the bumblebees' value as pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes, a plant that had been previously pollinated by hand or mechanical vibrations.6 Moving quickly, de Jonghe founded the company BioBest in 1987, which now has locations around the world, including  Canada. Since then many more companies have sprung up, rearing bumblebees to provide pollination services. The bumblebee finally found its rightful and useful place in the pollination world. Colonies are kept in small artificial nesting boxes, which are transported/delivered very easily. The boxes are simply placed in a desired location in the greenhouse and upon the opening of the colony door, the bumblebees quickly adapt to the new space and begin visiting the flowers.

Bumblebees can be bred and reared and used in greenhouses, or in field crops. Farmers can also exploit natural populations of bumblebees for crop pollination. Populations are in decline, so farmers can encourage the bees by sowing strips of wildflowers by the field, reducing chemical use, and by providing artificial nest sites nearby to encourage queens to nest. Crops may have a limited harvest depending on the availability of bees.7

Efficient pollination of greenhouse tomatoes is the bumblebee's forte, proving more economical than other methods. 8 Bumblebees can do what is called "buzz pollination," by grasping the pollen-loaded anther and shaking it to release the pollen. Tomatoes are pollinated in this manner, and the tell-tale brown bite marks on the flowers after a bee visit allows farmers to easily monitor the degree of pollination in the greenhouse. Cranberries, blueberries and kiwifruit, for example, are also "buzz" pollinated.9

In Canada, the bumblebee began to be commercially used as a tomato pollinator in 1990. Worldwide, there are only five bumblebee species commercially reared, and in North America there are two native bumblebees used: Bombus impatiens and Bombus occidentalis. 10 The B. impatiens is very successful in greenhouse crop pollination, not only for tomatoes, but also for muskmelons and sweet peppers. Recent studies suggest that only seven to fifteen colonies are needed per hectare of greenhouse tomatoes, which is equal to approximately 2000 bee trips per hectare, per day!11

According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian greenhouse vegetable farming industry has grown rapidly. An large proportion of fresh tomato production in Canada is accounted for by greenhouse grown tomatoes, worth $377 million in 2003.12 Unlike field-grown tomatoes, greenhouse tomatoes are allowed to stay on the vine until naturally ripe and only then are they harvested. Domesticated bumblebees are used in Canadian tomato greenhouses and the positive results of their pollination are easy to see, and good to eat!
 

  1. Velthuis, Hayo H.W. and Adriaan van Doorn. "A century of advances in bumblebee domestication and the economic and environmental aspects of its commercialization for pollination." Apidologie 37 (2006): 421-451.422.http://www.apidologie.org/index.php?option=article&access=standard&Itemid=129&url=/articles/apido/pdf/2006/04/m6028.pdf
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. 423
  4. Advantages of Bumblebees. http://www.biobest.ca
  5. "A century of advances in bumblebee domestication and the economic and environmental aspects of its commercialization for pollination." Apidologie 37 (2006): 421-451.423-425.http://www.apidologie.org/index.php?option=article&access=standard&Itemid=129&url=/articles/apido/pdf/2006/04/m6028.pdf
  6. Ibid. 427.
  7. Goulson, Dave. Bumblebees Behaviour and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 135.
  8. "A century of advances in bumblebee domestication and the economic and environmental aspects of its commercialization for pollination." Apidologie 37 (2006): 421-451.433, 427.http://www.apidologie.org/index.php?option=article&access=standard&Itemid=129&url=/articles/apido/pdf/2006/04/m6028.pdf
  9. Goulson, Dave. Bumblebees Behaviour and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 131.
  10. "A century of advances in bumblebee domestication and the economic and environmental aspects of its commercialization for pollination." Apidologie 37 (2006): 421-451. 431. http://www.apidologie.org/index.php?option=article&access=standard&Itemid=129&url=/articles/apido/pdf/2006/04/m6028.pdf
  11. Goulson, Dave. Bumblebees Behaviour and Ecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 134.
  12. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. http://publications.gc.ca/Collection/Statcan/21-004-X/21-004-XIE2005001.pdf