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Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.

Hmm...

Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

An Irisdescent Green Sweat Bee (photo by Cyrus Khamak)

Sweat bees are tiny bees of the family Halictidae.  They take their common name from their affinity for human sweat, which they lap off of our naked skin for the salts and electrolytes therein. Sweat bees are small (at least to us) and tend to measure between 3 and 10 millimeters in length. A few species have thick robust bodies, but most are slender and delicate.  They tend to be glossy black, but some have exoskeletons which are gorgeous shades of metallic gold, green, purple, or blue.

The majority of sweat bee species nest in the ground (although a few build their homes in dead trees).  The social behavior of sweat bees runs the entire gamut of bee conduct: the University of Florida Department of Entomology Website states, “species can be solitary, communal, semi-social, or eusocial.”  Sweat bees therefore greatly interest entomologists who are studying the development of eusocial insects—those hive-minded insects which form colonies made up of a mass-reproducing queen served by a number of biologically sterile individuals.  Most species of sweat bees live together in a simple underground tunnel-hive where they act more like roommates than like city-states, however some halictids do indeed create caste-based societies (albeit not as large and elaborately organized as those of honey bees or ants).

Sweat bees mass-provision their larval offspring—which is to say they stick a mass of pollen inside a waterproof cell, place an egg on it, and seal then it off until a functional adult emerges (as opposed to honey bees which lovingly feed the larva as they develop).

Halictidae species are immensely important to flowering plants.  They are critical pollinators for many wildflowers, crops, and fruits.  Therefore, although the creatures usually fly beneath our notice, they have a tremendous importance to humankind and to ecosystems as a whole. Not all sweat bees are virtuous workers: some species are cleptoparasitic and lay their eggs on the pollen masses accumulated by another species of bee.  A handful of these little bees are outright parasites in the manner of the parasitoid wasps.

A Sweat Bee Gathering Pollen and Nectar from a Poppy

Like their fiercer large relatives, sweat bees are capable of stinging, however their stings are weak (which is fortunate considering their affinity for landing on us).   Sweat bee stings rate a lowly 1.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a remarkably poetic scale for rating the discomfort caused by hymenopteran venom). I have been stung by a sweat bee and the sensation was that of a needle-like itch which penetrated deep below the skin and then subsided almost immediately.

The sweat bees are cosmopolitan, which means they can be found throughout all similar habitats in the world (although they are thin on the ground in Australia and South East Asia).  However the sweat bees are cosmopolitan in another way: alert reader, Michael Donohue (who is always on the look-out to identify his fellow native New Yorkers), sent me an article which details the discovery and naming of a new species of Halictidae, Lasioglossum gotham, which Dr. John Ascher, a bee researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discovered in Brooklyn Botanic garden in 2009.  In the NY Times article about the discovery, Ascher describes how New York City has a very rich diversity of wild bees.

Lasioglossum gotham–actually about the size of a rice grain (photo by American Museum of Natural History)

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