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Guest Blog - You Say Tomato... by Gill Perkins

Hypnorum: Gill Perkins, the CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust visited my office a few years ago, and gave an engaging and thought-provoking presentation to some of my colleagues. There was one particularly eye-opening point for us, and it is something that might be interesting to a wider audience. A bit of an 'inconvenient truth' as it were. I asked Gill to translate the topic into blog form and she has kindly done so and let me host it here.

You say Tomato I say Tomato – but without bumblebees there are no tomatoes!

Did you know that in Britain we eat around 500,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every year?! According to market insights specialist, Kantar, lunch is the meal we’re most likely to add tomatoes to at the moment. Of all the tomatoes we buy in the UK, British growers currently produce around a fifth – around 100,000 tonnes and during the summer, this goes up to around half the tomatoes bought. In total we Brits spend £921M on tomatoes annually and of this £190M is on British grown tomatoes. THAT IS AN AWFUL LOT OF TOMATOES... AND AN AWFUL LOT OF BUMBLEBEES.

It occurred to me some time ago that there was a strangely absent understanding about how wonderful tomato ketchup, salsa, pizzas and many other fantastic tomato dishes actually manage to get on our plates. Mostly, it is because of the fabulous bumblebee.

Bee species differ in their foraging preferences, selecting flowers based on their shape, colour and scent. This reflects the co-evolution between plants and pollinators and means plants with certain floral traits depend on compatible bee species.

The tomato flowers hold pollen tightly in their anthers, making it hard to access for protein hunting insects. (Pollinators feed on pollen and nectar, the pollen is rich in protein and generally fed to the developing larvae, the nectar is a high-energy sustenance food).

The way that bumblebees get to the tomato pollen is quite amazing. They use a technique called Buzz Pollination.

They contract their flight muscles so that the power is diverted to their body, which vibrates not just their body but their legs and mouthparts too. When the bee is on the flower, this vibration loosens the pollen grains, which she then combs into her pollen baskets. Any grains that are missed are usually on the bee and then pollinate neighbouring flowers as she moves from flower to flower. It’s a technique that is unique to bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees cannot do it and affords excellent pollination for crops within the Solanaceae family such as tomatoes, aubergines and blueberries.

Think back to the quantity of tomatoes consumed in the UK. Do we have enough bumblebees to deliver the sheer quantity? In actual fact, we do not.

Think back to the quantity of tomatoes consumed in the UK. Do we have enough bumblebees to deliver the sheer quantity? In actual fact, we do not. It is common knowledge that bumblebees are in decline and we have already lost two species to extinction. In the UK we import about 70,000 boxes of commercially farmed bumblebees every year. (Further information here.)

Bumblebees have been reared commercially for pollination services since the 1980’s. In this practice, bumblebee colonies are reared in captivity and then individual colonies are shipped around the globe to aid the pollination of crops, especially soft fruits like tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries.

There are strict licensing laws laid down by Natural England as to how these bumblebees are managed, imported and used within a greenhouse or poly tunnel.

Probably the saddest end to this tale is that once pollination is completed, these helpful little creatures are destroyed. The licensing conditions clearly state:

The marked hives must be closed and removed from the crop by the 70th day after introduction and before the 30 September 2020, the bumblebees killed within two days and the hives disposed of as soon as possible.

Bumblebees are to be killed either by freezing for at least two days at -18°C or by the application of an approved bee or wasp nest treatment insecticide.

It should be noted that most bumblebees would die out naturally in the same season, with only the new queens living on to start a new colony the next year. Still, it is understandable that some may be uncomfortable with colonies being bought in and intentionally culled, with no queens having the opportunity to continue the cycle.

Vegans can individually decide to what extent they would take this information into account. Outdoor-grown tomatoes pollinated by local native bees would of course pose no concerns, but unless we grow them ourselves, how would we know that we aren't supporting the importing and killing of bees? Given that the Soil Association does not forbid the use of imported bumblebees, an 'organic' label is no guarantee that this practice has not contributed to the produce we are buying. As so many products contain tomatoes - pizza sauce, soups, salads, condiments etc, it seems futile and overwhelming.

So what is the message here? Enjoy your tomatoes, but do spare a thought for the hardworking bumblebees that produced them, and do all you can to reverse the declines of our native bumblebees.

Hypnorum: I'd love to end this with a 'call to arms' and for us to be able to offer practical suggestions on how to avoid buying produce which has been pollinated in this manner, but it is a complicated issue. We don't want to berate farmers, who are simply trying to meet demand, and we don't want to tell people to boycott tomatoes, as that is rather drastic. I'm not aware of any current labelling conventions/regulations that would cover this. For me, and for Gill, it is a case of raising awareness, and trying to help our precious bees in realistic ways.

For anyone interested in supporting our wild bees, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is the only charity in the UK solely dedicated to our wonderful bumblebees; they also have a soft spot for solitary bees. If you aren't already familiar with them, do check them out; you might be surprised at the difference you can make with small, simple steps.

For further information on the issue of parasites from imported bumblebees on our native bees, Gill recommends this video:

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