Planet Earth

Coffee with a Killer

By Lauren GravitzDec 1, 2002 6:00 AM


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The African "killer" honeybee, right, seems to be helping out coffee lovers everywhere—and may end up helping tropical forests as well. David Roubik, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, reports that the bees play a major role in pollinating the Coffea arabica plant, which researchers had previously believed relied primarily on self-pollination.

Roubik followed the development of flower to fruit on 50 different coffee plants. He covered some branches with fine-meshed bags to keep out would-be pollinators but left others accessible and then observed the maturing berries for eight months. Insect pollination—mostly performed by African honeybees—resulted in heavier, more abundant fruit than self-pollination and improved the yield overall by more than 50 percent. To Roubik, the connection between coffee and killer bees makes sense: "The geographic origin of the African honeybee and coffee is the same place—southern and central Africa."

This study also casts doubt on growing coffee in full sun, which has long been assumed to increase yield. The practice requires clear-cutting tropical forest and adding lots of chemicals, but that also destroys the habitat of the coffee-pollinating African bee. Roubik's results imply that the traditional approach of growing the coffee under shade trees and near patches of tropical forest makes sense both economically and environmentally. "I'm sure there will be bigger profit in a system where you have the crop and the pollinators and the shade all together, and just let them go merrily along," he says.

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