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History & Culture

Pollinating Orchards By Hand | Lessons From Sichuan, China

Bees and other pollinators play an invaluable role on our planet – from being an integral part of land-based ecosystems to sustaining human agricultural systems through pollination. But how does agriculture fare when these little miracle workers disappear from a landscape? Read on to learn why farmers in China’s Sichuan Province have resorted to pollinating their orchards by hand, and what drove this unusual practice.

Why our plants need pollinators

In 2019, bees were declared the most important species on Earth.1 They are so important that without them, the majority of the world’s plants would go unpollinated, causing a devastating ripple effect in global ecosystems. But bees aren’t just vital components of natural ecosystems, they are crucial to cultivated ones as well. Through pollinating much of the world’s crops, bees play an integral role in agricultural systems. 

To paint a picture of just how significant that role is, start by imagining a plate of your favourite food. Now mentally throw 1/3 of that food away. This is a small taste of how radically different our lives would be without bees and other pollinators. Approximately one in every three bites of food comes from animal-pollinated species.2 The FAO estimates some 90% of the world’s food supply comes from about 100 crops, 71 of which require animal pollination.3  And this isn’t just true for the fruits and vegetables we eat, but also a number of crops fed to livestock, such as clover, soy and alfalfa, making bees key gatekeepers to meat and dairy industries as well.4 

Find out why the honeybee is not in danger - and why we should be protecting native bees 

Shrinking pollinator numbers

In recent years, news of rapidly declining pollinator numbers has captured the attention of mainstream media, ecologists, climate scientists and agriculturalists worldwide.5 A recent report from the UN warned that 2 out of 5 species of invertebrate pollinators (native bees, but also butterflies and other wild insects) are now endangered.6 At the same time, studies conducted in North America have also shown evidence of reduced farmed pollinator numbers – between October 2018 and April 2019, U.S. beekeepers lost close to 40% of their honeybee colonies. While it’s typical for a proportion of honeybee colonies to die out over winter, this was the worst recorded winter colony loss since the survey began 13 years ago.7 

Practices associated with large-scale modern farming, such as land clearing and the use of agrichemicals, have all contributed to a steep decline in pollinators – which only undermines the industries’ future. The loss of pollinators threatens not only the health and diversity of Earth’s ecosystems but also global food security and billions of dollars worth of crops each year, not to mention millions of jobs in associated agricultural industries.8

Sichuan province's hand-pollinated orchards

Agricultural sectors in certain parts of the world are already experiencing the impact of declining pollinator numbers, the most dramatic example is China – the world’s leading producer of pears and apples.9,10 In the apple and pear orchards of Southwest China, a lack of pollinators has left fruit farmers in Sichuan Province with no choice but to pollinate their orchards by hand. 

A Chinese farmer pollinates a pear tree by hand on March 25, 2016, in Hanyuan County, Sichuan province, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Hand pollination is a painstaking process, one in which farmers individually pollinate each tree’s blossoms using a ‘pollination stick’ – a thin bamboo pole topped with a brush made of either chicken feathers or even cigarette filters. This brush is dipped into a jar of pollen to saturate it, then rubbed against the stigma of the trees’ flowers. Pollinating crops by hand isn’t entirely efficient – whereas pollinators get right to the centre of each flower to deposit pollen, farmers need to repeat this step up to 5 times to ensure successful pollination.11



What led farmers to hand pollination? 

Sichuanese orchard farmers didn’t always rely on hand pollination. Records show the practice first emerged in the 1980s.11 Before then, most crops were insect-pollinated – in fact, the mountain ranges of Southwest China are said to have been teeming with wildlife and home to some of the greatest diversity of bumblebee species.12 

So, what happened? There are several causes at play, but the loss of natural pollinators and the subsequent dependence on hand pollination has been largely driven by two factors:

1. Habitat loss

As land devoted to pear and apple cultivation expands year-on-year, natural land has shrunk considerably, costing pollinators their habitats. Pollinators need surrounding wild spaces to nest, breed and forage when seasonal crops, like pears and apples, aren’t in bloom. In fact, multiple studies have shown that wild bees are generally only able to travel short distances from the nest, sometimes as little as 100 metres.13  To sustain themselves while out foraging for nectar and pollen, bees depend on nearby areas of flower-rich land where they can rest and refuel before heading home. Agricultural expansion has displaced and fragmented wild foraging sites vital to pollinators, severely limiting the food available to wild bees within flying range. The effects of this: sharp declines in the number of pollinators in these agricultural sites.14,15 

2. Intensive pesticide use

The second and possibly leading impact is the overuse of pesticides. To protect yields from crop-damaging species like pear lice, intensive pesticide use has become common practice in the region. One study found that pear orchards in Sichuan Province were often sprayed 12 times before being harvested.11 In fact, reliance on pesticides isn’t just a problem in the Southwest – at a national scale, China consumes 1,763,000 tons of pesticides per year, making it the world’s largest consumer, with its application rates far outweighing those of many higher-income countries.16,17 Pesticide use in agriculture is a double-edged sword; while it kills pests, it also kills wild pollinators – insects that are crucial components of agricultural systems. 

Since heavy pesticide use also discourages local beekeepers from leasing their hives to farmers, orchards weren’t getting sufficient pollination, resulting in low fruit yields. To help struggling farmers, the local government introduced hand pollination in the mid-1980s. Since then, most farmers in the region have turned to the practice to sustain their livelihood.11 

A long-term alternative or a short-term fix?

While hand pollination seems to have solved the problem of low fruit yields in the short term, it’s a bandaid rather than a cure. With economic development rising across the region, hired manual labour is becoming increasingly expensive, challenging the long-term viability of the practice.11 If local farmers hope to protect their profits and meet demand in the future, pollinators will need to be coaxed back into the picture. 

Preserving our pollinators

When it comes to assessing the health and diversity of an ecosystem, bees have been described as the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ – in other words, declining bee numbers are a clear warning signal that something in an ecosystem is off-kilter. While many modern farms have become hostile environments for bees, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we want to enjoy the same fruits and vegetables we enjoy today, we need a more sustainable approach and environment to preserve our pollinators.

Fortunately, studies have shown that sustainable farming practices such as planting strips of wildflowers and leaving areas of undisturbed natural land between agricultural plots can greatly boost pollinator numbers. An added bonus of leaving undisturbed natural areas is that it encourages local bird populations, which in turn keep pests down and reduces the need for chemical pesticides.18 Some experts have even suggested that by devoting a quarter of cropland to flowering cash-crops, such as spices, oil seeds, medicinal and forage plants, farmers could support bees while ensuring sustained economic gains.19 

Farmers and agriculturalists have a pivotal role to play and a vested interest in reversing these alarming declines. The bottom line is that if we want to keep our food choices diverse and affordable in the future, modern farming practices must focus on safeguarding pollinators and the essential services they provide.

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