Bees in Space: Bumblebees Show Promise for Off-World Pollination


For years, scientists have been working to figure out how humans can grow the food plants they’d need to sustain a crew in long-distance space missions – and pollination is a big part of that puzzle.

Honeybees may be the most efficient pollinators of food crops here on earth, but the low pressure conditions and enclosed space that would be involved for a space-travelling greenhouse are not conditions in which honeybees work well. (If you’ve ever had any of your own bees get trapped inside a glassed-in porch or greenhouse, you’ll know all too well how they bump blindly against the windows and seem to forget all about the plants!)

Bumblebees, on the other hand, are already established as the greenhouse pollinator of choice, since they seem much happier to work indoors. Now, a new study from the University of Guelph find that bumblebees also seem to tolerate low-pressure conditions, such as would most likely be necessary in an extra-terrestrial plant production facility.

Will bumblebees someday provide their pollination services in space?

See: E. Nardone, P.G. Kevan, M. Stasiak and M. Dixon. 2012. Atmospheric pressure requirements of bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) as pollinators of Lunar or Martian greenhouse grown food. Gravitational and Space Biology 26(2): 13-21.

Photo: Bombus impatiens by llorban, via Wikimedia Commons

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