“No Bees, No Food.” How Insects Help Farmers With Their Harvest
Louise Gray on New and Unexpected Innovations in Modern Farming
On a May morning, when the first orange-tip butterflies are feeding on the wildflowers left on the road verges, I drive down to the Borders to visit Scotland’s biggest tomato farm. At first, I think I have missed it. As I park up at Standhill Farm, I can see Holstein cattle—another Dutch import—grazing the fields and bales of silage stacked against the old stone walls, but no sign of a greenhouse. It is only when I approach the farmhouse that I see the flashes of glass nestled in a field behind the steading.
It is a bit like traveling forward through time. One minute I am in a dairy farmer’s kitchen, leaning against the Aga and chatting about milk prices, mucky overalls hanging at the door and the smell of wet grass, sour milk and manure in the air. The next, we are sanitizing our boots and walking into a “food factory” growing Annamay cocktail tomatoes and Sweetelle baby plum tomatoes, where the warmth and scent of tomato vines remind me of holidays in Tuscany.
Jim Shanks is a typical modern farmer in many ways, with one foot in the old and one in the new. As a fifth-generation dairy farmer, he has worked hard to maintain a herd of cattle despite ongoing crises in the sector. He is rightly proud that his cows produce 70,000 pints of milk for Tesco every week.
But as an innovative Nuffield scholar and Scotland’s only major tomato farmer, he is also proud of embracing new technology. Jim decided to diversify after visiting similar farms in Europe and the US. Returning home, he saw that the cattle he so loved could be part of the solution if he just looked at them a little differently. In cow slurry, he had energy, and in his fields, he had space to use that energy to grow tomatoes.
Jim installed an anaerobic digester to capture methane from the cow slurry and burn it for electricity. After the methane has been extracted, the remaining slurry is rich in nitrogen and spread on the fields to help the grass grow. The excess heat from the engine on the anaerobic digester is used to dry woodchip that, in turn, powers a biomass boiler to heat the greenhouses. Again, the heat is renewable, coming from sustainably managed forests nearby. Finally, the tomatoes are fed by rainwater harvested from the roof of the giant greenhouse.
“Everything you see around you is powered by cow shit,” he says. “Even the car, an electric Tesla.”
The greenhouse is just like the behemoths pictured in National Geographic, built with modern glass that allows in 97 per cent of the light and lined on the floor with white sheeting. The F1 hybrid tomato plants are grown in bags full of rockwool and irrigated by drip-feeding. Computers constantly monitor the atmosphere to ensure the perfect amount of light, heat and CO2 to speed photosynthesis and “turbocharge” the growing tomatoes.
As I float up on a cherry picker past clusters of Piccolo cherry tomatoes, I feel a little like David Attenborough heading up into a rainforest canopy. It is humid and warm, and the green leaves filter the light around me. Workers in shorts and T-shirts scoot up and down the rows on trolleys, shouting insults and instructions. It is a tough job, but Jim has found 10 full-time employees in the local area and employs 12 more locals during the picking season.
Perks include being one of the few places in Scotland where you get to work in shorts. From my vantage point up high, I look across 1.5 hectares of plants at different stages of growth. If I squint slightly, I can see a cow in the distance through the glass.
When I come back down to earth, Jim offers me a freshly picked tomato. It is sweet and warm, which reminds me of picking tomatoes off the vine in the greenhouse at the community garden (I can never wait to get home to put them in a salad). He shrugs off criticism that tomatoes grown in industrial greenhouses are not the real thing. This is farming, he says. This is how his family have managed to stay on the farm for a fifth generation: by being innovative, by taking risks, by moving with the times, not holding on to the past, and most of all, by trusting in nature.
Despite all the technology invented by the British Victorians and improved on by the Dutch, and despite the GM technology and centuries of breeding, the key to tomato farming in Scotland, Holland or anywhere else in the world is bees. Thousands of bumblebees are buzzing around the flowers at the top of the canopy in Jim’s greenhouse. The insects are brought in from Belgium, where the Biobest Group is now one of the biggest “bio-control” companies in the world, supplying 700,000 bumblebees a week to greenhouses and breeding other insects to help protect fruits and vegetables against pests.
Like many childhood games, bumblebee racing was the best education Roland de Jonghe could have hoped for. The young veterinarian continued his hobby well into adulthood, breeding bees not only in the garage but in his living room, kitchen, backyard and attic. (Company legend has it that the only place without bumblebees was his bedroom because his wife “didn’t allow that.”) Yet it was only while watching a bumblebee pollinate a tomato that he had the “eureka” moment that this strange hobby might be helpful in the greenhouses popping up all over Belgium.
Roland started to experiment with bumblebee nests in greenhouses in the early 1980s. He soon found that they worked. The greenhouses with his bumblebees supplied bigger and juicier fruit. He started to sell the bumblebee colonies to farmers, and in 1987, he set up The Biobest Group. From 1980–96 in the Netherlands, physical yields of tomatoes increased by 97 per cent. This increase was primarily thanks to improvements in glasshouse technology, but much of it was due to bees.
Bumblebees are vital to the tomato crop because they help to pollinate the fruit. All bees buzz when they fly, but some buzz better than others. Bumblebees can also buzz their bodies when they hang on to a flower, which they do to dislodge the pollen. Although tomato plants are officially described as “self-pollinators” because each flower has a male anther and a female stigma, they produce a lot more fruit if they are helped a little by insect pollinators. Ideally, the anther will be vibrated at around 400Hz.
Fortunately, bumblebees are very good at this, placing their upper body close to the anthers and then vibrating their hairy little bodies at a frequency of around 400Hz. These low vibrations, known as buzz pollination, shake free the pollen, allowing it to drop down onto the stigma so that fertilization can occur. Blueberries, aubergines and kiwi fruit also have flowers structured so that buzz pollination will dislodge the pollen and allow fertilization. Growers can even see where pollination has taken place because bumblebees will leave a small bite mark with their mandibles where they grab hold of the petals and vibrate their flight muscles at that magic number, 400Hz.
In the past, farmers have tried to imitate the bumblebee by using an artificial buzzer to pollinate the plants by hand. One brand of vibrating wand is known as an “electric bee.” This is not only costly, but it’s also not that effective. No artificial pollination matches the efficiency of bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower. The tomato will only release pollen for an hour a day. Only the bumblebee will find that flower and ensure they are pollinated, buzzing into four to six flowers every minute. The traditional name for a bumblebee is humblebee; this is what Shakespeare calls the bumblebee in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think it suits this hardworking insect, getting on with the job without fuss or much recognition.The key to tomato farming in Scotland, Holland or anywhere else in the world is bees.
Despite being key to pollinating a third of crops that require pollination and providing honey and wax, honey bees are no good at this buzz pollination because they do not vibrate inside the flower. Also, honey bee hives are far too big to be contained in a greenhouse, unlike little bumblebee nests. Honey bees do not like living in greenhouses and will fly out to forage over a much wider area.
Since the Biobest Group—and, in its wake, several other companies—started breeding bumblebees for commercial use, the industry has exploded. Today around 2.5 million bumblebee colonies are reared artificially every year, and they are used in over 30 countries on more than 25 crops. This has not come without problems, however.
Like humans and plants, bumblebees transfer disease. Non-native bumblebees can also outcompete native species. After being introduced for commercial use, the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) has caused problems for native species in Japan and Chile. Breeders claim that bumblebees do not escape the greenhouses, but accidents happen. The only country that does not use bumblebees commercially is Australia because of the risks associated with introducing a non-native bee species. Currently, Australian tomato farmers use a vibrating wand and human labour to pollinate tomatoes, and they are experimenting with “robot bees” to do the job. But they may do better to study the insects on their doorstep.
A study in the Journal of Economic Entomology in 2021 called for more research into (sub)species of buzz pollinators in different countries so native species could be used wherever possible. It pointed out there are 20,000 species of bees worldwide, each with unique flight patterns and body sizes to get into different flowers. It is crucial to preserve this diversity not only for rare flora but also for our food production. Biobest Group has introduced different species for various countries, including Bombus impatiens for North America (East Coast), Bombus huntii for North America (West Coast), Bombus atratus for South America, Bombus ignitus (Asia) and Bombus terrestris audax—a subspecies of the buff-tailed bumblebee—for the UK.
There is also concern about the treatment of the bees. They are bred in climate-controlled rooms stacked with cardboard boxes the same size as the rodent nests they would use in the wild. The bees are fed sugar water and mixed flower pollen and will die after one season, as they would in nature. This could be described as “intensive” farming of a living species, and many feel uncomfortable with it. Many vegans exclude honey from their diets because it is a product made “by bees for bees.” Avoiding fruits pollinated by commercially bred honey bees or bumblebees is harder for the vegan community to avoid, though the debate is ongoing. On the other hand, using bumblebees has meant significant progress in an area of horticulture important to the environment: a reduction in the use of pesticides.
Once you put bumblebees in a greenhouse, you cannot use pesticides because they will kill the bees. You have to think of more innovative ways to control pests. This has led to a growing area of agriculture called “bio-control,” in other words, controlling pests by using other organisms rather than chemical pesticides. Farmers have been doing this for generations. I remember my Uncle Kenneth keeping an empty jar in the combine harvester to fish out any ladybirds he found in the grain and return them to the field to eat aphids.
A leading company in this area, Koppert, has a similarly interesting founding story to Biobest Group. Jan Koppert, a cucumber farmer, realized he was suffering from a rash caused by the pesticides he was using, so he started thinking of a way to try to control pests without using chemicals. Noticing that predatory mites got rid of spider mites, he developed a way to breed the insects so they could be released in greenhouses. Together, Koppert and Biobest Group are now two of the world’s biggest companies producing “bio-control solutions” for controlling pests in greenhouses. The companies list more than 50 “control agents” with names that sound like a roll call from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “Who is going to save the planet from blueberry aphid? Cryptobug or Ladybird?”
Even bumblebees have gotten in on the act. Bumblebees or “flying doctors” leave the hive via an integrated dispenser system where they pick up biopesticides on their bodies; they then spread that onto flowers as they forage. This is an effective way to protect strawberries against grey mould, which tends to infect the berries through the flower. Bio-vectors, as the bumblebees are known, ensure only the targeted use of natural bio-control products.There is one thing that this glasshouse cannot do without: 75 hives from Belgium every year.
Inside greenhouses, insects are more important than ever for pollination and to provide natural pest control. But outside, there has been a shocking decline in insect life. Globally, more than 40 per cent of insect species are declining, and a third are endangered. In the UK, a 2021 study that counted insect “splats” on windscreens found the number of flying insects in the UK has plunged by almost 60 per cent since 2004.
Scientists worldwide blame insect declines on habitat loss as we replace forests and other wild areas with buildings or monoculture farming. Another major contributor to insect declines has been the increasing use of pesticides. Like nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides were developed post-war by factories that had been producing weapons. Since the Second World War, the production of chemicals has increased worldwide to 3 million tonnes annually. Farmers claim they are reducing the use of pesticides, but campaign groups like the Soil Association and Pesticide Action Network say the pesticides still in use are more toxic. A key concern is neonicotinoids, which generally harm bees and insects.
The one area where pesticides are genuinely declining is in greenhouses, and increasingly, it is an inspiration to farmers growing crops outdoors. Organic farmers have always planted wildflowers and hedges near crops to allow “beneficial predators” to thrive. Now “conventional” farmers are getting on board. Beetle banks, wildflower meadows and just plain messy margins are actively encouraged under government subsidies to allow aphid- and fly-eating insects like ground beetles, spiders and wasps to thrive. Bumblebees have helped farmers realize how important insect life is.
A few months after my first visit, I get in touch again with Jim Shanks, the dairy and tomato farmer. He has terrible news: the dairy is closing down. The pandemic was brutal, he says. At one point, when all the staff had Covid-19—including him—he had to “crawl into the milking parlor” twice a day. It was just not worth it for the paltry amount the milk was earning him. Jim is sad to be “the one who let it happen on his watch” but grateful that he had time to diversify into a crop that is making him money.
The tomatoes are thriving, supermarkets want to stock “Scottish tomatoes” in their “local aisle,” Jim’s wife has started making tomato wine, and school trips all want to know about the bees buzzing around in the canopy. In a way, the insects have become Jim’s livestock, working with him to produce food. It is not the same as a cattle herd built up over five generations, but Jim does seem fond of them. Touring the greenhouse, he bends down to show me a little cardboard box like the ones invented by Roland de Jonghe for breeding “race” bumblebees. It looks like an ordinary shoebox and smells faintly of old socks—industrious humblebees buzz in and out of the holes.
For all the talk of ionized glass, renewable electricity, genome editing and precision agriculture, there is one thing that this glasshouse cannot do without: 75 hives from Belgium every year.
“That’s it,” says Jim. “No bees, no food.”
Excerpted from Avocado Anxiety: And Other Stories About Where Your Food Comes From by Louise Gray. Copyright © 2023. Run with permission of the author, courtesy of Bloomsbury Wildlife, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.