Vanilla grows on orchids and is cultivated within a regenerative mixed farming method. Its mainly grown with green bananas (matooke) in Uganda. Cultivating and processing the spice is time and labour intensive, in particular because each individual orchid must be pollinated by hand the same day the flower opens.
The Vanilla Orchid is thought to have originated in Mexico. Here, when anorchid arrives, it is naturally pollinated by a special type of bee; the Melipona bee. However, as you may well know, there are now many other countries that mass produce vanilla commercially; these include Tahiti, Hawaii, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea. In these other locations, and indeed, some in Mexico, the orchids are pollinated by hand.
In this post, we explain the differences between the hand-pollination process and bee pollination, discussing in detail exactly why, when, and how the process works.
Why do countries pollinate vanilla plants by hand?
The survival of vanilla beans is largely due to the valiant efforts of the Melipona bee. It is the only bee known to be capable of pollinating the vanilla orchid. The Vanilla Orchid flowers are hermaphroditic, and this means they contain both female and male parts. Because of a specific tissue in the flower that actually covers the stem (called the rostellum), the flower is unable to self-pollinate. Another factor to consider is that the pollen on a vanilla orchid is incredibly tough to access. As such, your everyday honeybee cannot reach the pollen. This is why the Melipona bee was so precious in its native habitat. As a final point, the flower blooms for just a single day each year, and it’s only open for a few hours as well.
Because Vanilla Orchids are now grown in many locations across the globe (mostly in sub-tropical and warm tropical climates), it became necessary to introduce a hand-pollination process. Without human intervention, the vanilla orchids may have faded away and become extinct.
The hand pollination process for vanilla
The hand pollination process is extremely labor-intensive, and because the Melipona Bee is only found in Mexico, for every other country that grows vanilla, a human hand-pollination process is required. Typically, the hand pollination of vanilla plants will take place between the months of October and January.
Before we explain how the hand-pollination process for vanilla works, let’s talk about where the idea for hand pollination came from. On a remote island in the Indian Ocean, way back in the middle of the 1800s, a young man called Edmond Albuis created the technique. In doing this, he solved a botanical mystery and came up with a method that is still used today.
How do you pollinate vanilla?
Vanilla Orchid flowers are produced in groups, and they will usually bloom sequentially. As such, a single orchid could flower one day, and another the next, and so on. However, as we’ve already mentioned, when a Vanilla Orchid flowers, it’s just for a few hours, and only on one day of the year. The window for pollinating the flower just after the first few hours of its opening.
What do you need? A simple toothpick, that’s all.
Step 1 – Sadly, you do need to tear open the beautiful flower. This enables you to access the reproductive parts of the plant more easily.
Step 2 – The toothpick can be inserted into the bottom of the flower and pulled upwards to tear the flower. Or, you simply do this (carefully), by hand.
Step 3 – Once the reproductive system is exposed (also known as the column), you need to find the flap and the pollen. In the top part that is folded over the flap (the male part of the flower); this is where you will find the pollen.
Step 4 – To hand pollinate the vanilla flower, you can use your toothpick to lift up the flap and fold the male part away to enable the male and female parts of the plant to make contact. Make sure you only squeeze it gently though; now you have hopefully successfully pollinated the flower!
Step 5 – You will know within a matter of 2-3 weeks whether or not you pollinated the flower successfully by the appearance of the beans. Those which were pollinated successfully will appear firm, they will swell, and they become a bold greenish color. Those who were not pollinated will become slightly yellow and limp.
When do you know the time is right for hand-pollination of vanilla plants?
The vanilla orchid flowers once a year for a matter of hours. You will need to pollinate the flower as soon as possible, preferably within the first few hours after it opens.
What difference does it make when a vanilla bean is pollinated by hand vs. naturally by a bee?
As with everything related to nature, there is a powerful force at work. The main difference between hand pollination and natural bee pollination is that bee pollination has only ever taken place in Mexico. Outside of this location, it cannot happen. Hand pollination is exceptionally labor-intensive and very time-sensitive; it also requires constant monitoring over a specific time period. Both result in the same flavor profile, and there are just as many risks with bee pollination as with hand pollination.
With hand pollinations, workers dedicate themselves to pollinating as many flowers as they can within the optimal timeframes. There is no room for error as poor pollination can severely hamper the harvest.