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Published: 20 Oct 2020

Alistair Gracie

Pollen, the mere mention can make you sneeze. But for bees it is pure gold and fundamental to around $4 billion of horticultural crops annually.

This spring researchers from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) are making a ‘beeline’ for cherry orchards and onion seed crops in the pursuit of pollen.

Their aim is to develop a mechanised pollination system as a form of ‘bee insurance’ and to improve crop performance for growers.

Mechanical pollination involves humans intervening and physically collecting pollen from flowers and reapplying it when and where it is needed.

TIA project lead Associate Professor Alistair Gracie said that whilst they are not planning for a life without bees, they are looking at both future proofing pollination services and creating better outcomes for our fruit and vegetable industries.

“We currently rely strongly on one species of insect, the honeybee, to pollinate our flowering horticultural crops. This leaves us incredibly vulnerable to honeybee threats such as varroa mite and even bushfires,” Associate Professor Gracie said.

“Mechanical pollination is just one element of a safety net being developed to ensure our horticultural crops are pollinated in a worst-case scenario.”

The broader national research program, funded by Rural R&D for Profit, is investigating alternative pollinators such as flies and stingless bees, revegetation of native insect habitat and bee health under protected cultivation systems.

Associate Professor Gracie said mechanical pollination’s future use is really designed to supplement bee pollination.

“Bee assisted pollination is not always perfect. Moving many of our horticultural crops under nets and plastic covers has put added pressure on our bees, particularly their navigation systems, upsetting both pollination and bee health,” he said.

On the other hand, bees’ preference for working outside can also be their undoing. This spring is proving that not every day is a good day for bees to work with cold wind and rain sending them back to the hives, leaving crops vulnerable to poor fruit set and low yields.

Associate Professor Gracie said this is just one example of how mechanical pollination can come into play.

“We see an opportunity to deliver pollen when bees are inactive, and also a role for highly targeted pollen application and application to crops where the pollen donor crop and pollen recipient are not in synchrony.”

This is particularly true for hybrid vegetable seed production, where a ‘male’ pollen donor crop is normally grown in alternate rows alongside the ‘female’ seed crop. Eliminating the need to synchronise these can open the door to a completely new range of donor cultivars available for use.

The same principle can be applied to other horticultural crops such as cherries and apples that rely on cross pollination.

TIA researcher Dr Alieta Eyles said every stage of the mechanical pollination process has its challenges, particularly when dealing with trees.

“We collect flowers from the orchard, carefully separate the flower parts then dry and freeze the pollen. When it’s time to put the pollen back out in the orchard, we also test how viable it is. Our research is about finding the best method for each stage of the process to achieve the best pollination result,” Dr Eyles said.

The current research on mechanical pollination, whilst still at the  ‘proof of concept’ stage,  is one component of a pollination insurance policy for our horticultural industries with the added potential for new more sophisticated and targeted pollination services in the future.

The research team are working closely with industry partners seedPurity, Hansen Orchards, Reid Fruits and South Pacific Seeds.

TIA is a joint venture of the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government.

This article also appeared in Tasmanian Country on 16 October 2020.