Mars Exchange
Food for Mars: Bumble Bees

Food for Mars: Bumble Bees

by Natasha Schön on Thursday, 18th June 2015 in Food for Mars, People, Wieger Wamelink

After a month the first plants of spinach, radish, garden cress, pea and rye have started to flower. We eat the seeds of the pea and rye, but all crops have to form enough seeds to use for the next cycle of planting and food production, but how to pollinate them? This is the sixth post in a blog series about experiments conducted by a team of ecologists and crop scientists of Wageningen UR. The goal of these experiments is a proof of concepts for providing the first (human) Martians with ‘own-grown’ fresh food. Make sure to read our first five blog posts!

In order to achieve sustainable food production it is not enough to just grow crops for consumption. A part of the crops have to be used to provide seeds for the next generation of crops. Sending in new seeds for each cycle from Earth would be costly and unreliable. Consequently, the seeds have to be grown on Mars (and the moon) itself. To develop seeds, plants have to be fertilized; that is done via tiny particles called pollen that are released by the anther, the male part of a flower, which must land on the stigma, the female reproductive part of a flower.

There are four different ways for plants to reproduce. The first is vegetative reproduction where there is no pollination and fertilization and a part of the plant splits-off to form the next generation; potatoes are an example of this. This is very handy for the (human) Martians, since no extra effort is necessary for the reproduction – apart from collecting and planting potatoes. All the other three forms of plant reproduction need pollination. Self-pollination is the easiest (for the Martian farmers), where the pollen of the plant fertilize its own stigma sometimes even before the flower opens. Many species, such as the rye in our experiment, rely on wind pollination. Wind is normally absent in a greenhouse (especially on Mars or the Moon) but could be generated for the purpose of pollination. Finally there is pollination by animals, mostly insects. Insect pollination can be substituted by hand pollination, which is what we did in our first experiment when plants started to flower unexpectedly, and since there were no insects in the greenhouse we had to using a paintbrush. That was just about doable when a part of the 840 pots of plants flowered, but will not really be possible when you are growing crops for a whole crew of Martian colonists. It would simply cost too much time. Pollination by insects could also help the fruit setting of self-pollinators - whilst many agricultural and horticultural crops have nowadays been bred to self-pollinate, it is notable that fruit setting is often (much) better when they are also pollinated by insects.

We discussed pollination and the need for bringing insects, preferably bumble bees, when I gave a presentation about the experiment to two school classes of 8-10 year olds recently (all students of the ‘boemerang’ (boomerang) schoo)l. They asked more questions than I have ever had when giving a presentation. We had a deep discussion about whether to bring honey bees or bumble bees. I explained that I am in favour of bumble bees. Apart from the fact that they are cool looking and super fun animals to watch, most bumble bee species live in colonies like honey bees. It would be relatively easy to bring the bumble bee queens in hibernation, especially when NASA brings back traveling time to Mars to approximately four months. In the artificial climate of the habitats they might even establish ‘perpetual’ colonies.

Story contributed by Wieger Wamelink, a Senior Ecologist at Alterra. 

More Information:

 Flowering plant of garden rocket on soil simulant. In order to form seeds it needs to be pollinated.

Bumble bee, my favourite pollinator for Mars.

School class of 8-10 years old children after the lecture on cultivating plants on Mars. I am holding the' day before arrived' Mars globe.

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