Researchers Fertilize Pear Trees with Pollen from Bursting Soap Bubbles

bubble guns used in pollination experiment, though drones may be next

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Japanese researchers are seeking an alternative method of flower pollination, BBC News reported. For the first time, they’ve used pollen carried on soap bubbles to successfully pollinate pear trees. Bees typically carry this workload.

Bumble bee
The hairs all over a bee’s body attract flower pollen as the bee lands on a flower, intending to collect pollen to feed is offspring, thus carrying it from flower to flower as the bee travels to additional plants. Photo by Feng Lu / Shutterstock

According to BBC News, the future may be bubbly thanks to researchers looking into new ways to pollinate the world’s flora. “They’ve been searching for alternative approaches to pollination, because of the decline in the number of bees worldwide,” the article said. “When fired from a bubble gun, the delicate soapy spheres achieved a success rate of 95%. The researchers are now testing drones that fire bubbles for pollination.”

Though their numbers are dwindling, bees still carry pollen as one of the many roles they perform in life. Their life cycles and usual routines remain fascinating and worthy of study.

The Not-So-Secret Life Cycle of Bees

The bee’s life cycle, flower pollination, and honeycombs are all interconnected, though bee reproduction doesn’t end well for all involved parties.

“During a mating flight, the virgin queen bee may mate with many males,” said Dr. Donald E. Moore III, Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Adviser at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “The male inserts his endophallus into the queen during her one-and-only mating flight, discharges his sperm, and leaves his endophallus behind in her as he withdraws. This rips his abdomen open, and males die after mating.”

After this, Dr. Moore said, the queen begins a new colony by planting her eggs—which can number up to one million—in individual cells in a honeycomb. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees while unfertilized eggs become male drone bees.

“The larva spends three days developing nervous and digestive systems, as well as its outer body covering, before hatching,” he said. “Worker bees feed the larvae with either honey or royal jelly, a substance made of pollen and glandular excretions from worker bees, until the larvae’s adult development into workers, queens, or drones is complete.”

Getting a Leg Up

Dr. Moore said that worker bees aren’t just caregivers for baby bees, but they also collect pollen, with a little help from their body structure.

“Honeybees have leg structures that are adaptive for pollen gathering and other activities. There are also pollen brushes on the front and middle legs which clean off pollen particles picked up on the bee’s body hairs, and these particles are then deposited on the pollen hairs of the hind legs. Finally, the long hairs of the pollen combs on the hind legs remove pollen from the comb of the opposite leg; then the specialized pollen packer—also called the auricle—presses it into the leg’s pollen basket, also called a corbicula, when the leg is flexed back.”

According to Dr. Moore, the workers bring the pollen back to the hive and it’s pushed into a waxy cell in the honeycomb. This pollen becomes the primary source of protein for bees.

With bee populations dwindling, it’s relieving to know that researchers are looking into alternative methods of pollinating plants. Bees aren’t the only pollinators out there, but their role in our ecology is as large as it is dynamic.

Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, Ph.D.

Dr. Donald E. Moore III contributed to this article. Dr. Moore is the director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and Zoology and a doctoral degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.