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How the bumblebee coincidentally saved the greenhouse industry

Bumblebees, beneficial insects and mites are probably the most loyal residents of a grower's greenhouse. But having them around is not all as natural as you think. Did you know that it was by a coincidence that a Belgian veterinarian discovered the power of bumblebees for greenhouse pollination? It was a revolutionary discovery that created quite a buzz. 

The Belgian veterinarian who made this discovery was Roland De Jonghe. He had always been fascinated by the world of bumblebees and was breeding them in his living room, backyard and garage as a hobby. One day, De Jonghe saw a bumblebee accidentally pollinating a tomato crop in one of his friend's hobby greenhouses in the early eighties. The veterinarian immediately realized that if he succeeded in bringing more bumblebees into a greenhouse, growers could make a giant leap forward and replace manual pollination.

De Jonghe's idea of putting bumblebees to work in a protected environment was a breakthrough discovery. Thanks to his extensive knowledge, experience and research, De Jonghe became the first to breed and produce bumblebees year-round, and soon after his company Biobest was born. Thirty years later, the Belgian company operates more than fourteen international subsidiaries and has distributors in over sixty countries. On a weekly basis, about 700,000 bumblebees leave their production facilities in Westerlo, on their way to help a desperate greenhouse grower pollinate his crops somewhere on the other side of the world.

Bumblebees in living room

"When I joined this company, Roland had bumblebees in his living room, kitchen, backyard, attic and even in his garage. The only place without bumblebees was his bedroom, because his wife didn't allow that", recalls Marc Mertens, Biobest's global sales director. He welcomed us at their headquarters in Belgium for a tour and was eager to show the fascinating world of bumblebees and beneficial insects.

The bumblebee coincidentally saved the image of the greenhouse industry, as it made growers aware of new and more sustainable practices. They opened the door for many other natural solutions. 

"Shortly after introducing bumblebees in commercial horticulture, the use of biological crop protection with beneficial insects was a logical next step", says Mertens, when explaining that for many growers, bumblebees are often their first step made into biological systems. "The biggest growth for us nowadays lies in the market for beneficial insects, which is poised to grow at a very rapid pace." 

Biological approach 

Mertens explained that this is a result of the increased interest in biologicals, all over the world. "Reason for this is that the use of bumblebees forces growers to rethink their entire crop protection strategies and move towards more sustainable and bumblebee-friendly biological methods. Next to this, stricter regulations placed pressure on the availability of conventional synthetic crop protection products. And last but not least; growers notice that the biological approach is often way more effective." 

For this reason, most of the growers in developed areas nowadays prefer biologicals over conventional pesticides, but it was not an easy road to get at this point. Mertens explained it took a lot of guidance and support before biologicals created their current place in the market. "Especially introducing biologicals in new markets takes a lot of consultation, guidance and above all, a lot of patience. But looking back at a country like Spain, we are very proud for what we have achieved. After years of many pesticide-related scandals, AlmerĂ­a is now fully adapted to the use of biologicals and is a good example of the opportunities elsewhere. It has shown that an advanced biological approach is possible in a low-tech situation. But still, especially in new economies, it requires a lot of patience, sometimes it almost feels like you're carrying out foreign aid. You need to remain confident and focus on the fact that you sell a solution that only works when you know how to apply it. Consultancy and guidance is of paramount importance."

Marc Mertens, Global sales director, and Ramon van der Kruijs, Plant operations manager, proudly showing us what Biobest is known for; the famous bumblebee hive in the purple and green colors. On a weekly basis, almost 10,000 of these hives leave their factory in Belgium. Click here for a photo recap of our visit to see how your bumblebees are made.

Biobest's R&D team receives requests for new biological IPM solutions from all over. "Sometimes it's very hard to say no, as we cannot help everybody at the same time. Yet, we do our best to help wherever possible, but have decided to focus on several core crops such as greenhouse vegetables, ornamentals and soft fruits. It is our goal to provide a solution to the most common problems in these crops, wherever they are grown in the world."

Future core crops

Aside from their sharp focus on major crops like bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, Biobest also sees many opportunities in international soft fruit markets. "We also focus on new solutions for soft fruit crops and have placed a lot of emphasis on crops such as citrus, which is currently challenged by a lot of problems. Among others, we consider this as one of our future core crops."

Mertens explained that dedicated research and cooperation with local farmers and research institutes plays a critical role when developing new solutions. "You want to have a biological solution available for almost every problem, but you will have to prioritize certain issues and want to analyze the markets and opportunities. Feedback from farmers and local research is very important in this process. We listen to them and from there determine what the odds are before we start to invest in a new solution." 

International growth

Over the last couple of years, Biobest has experienced a sharp growth in their export figures; the company saw huge sales increases in strong growing markets such as Canada, the United States, Mexico, Turkey, East Africa, East Europe and Scandinavia. By teaming up with local partners and creating joint ventures and takeovers of established parties, the company quickly grew into a leading player in the field of biological crop protection and pollination. 

"Over the last five years we have doubled our turnover", Mertens proudly stated. "Over the next five years we will double our turnover once more, we expect an annual sales increase of min. 15% or even higher." This growth will enable Biobest to strengthen its position and speed up the innovation of biological crop protection. "We have introduced some important innovations over the last couple of years, such as the Flying Doctors® entomovectoring system. This system is currently useful in strawberry crops, but ongoing development and innovation might further enhance this system for use in other crops. Think about using bumblebees to deliver a biopesticide against internal fruit rot in bell peppers." 

For more information
Biobest Belgium NV
Ilse Velden 18
2260 Westerlo - Belgium
T +32 14 25 79 80
F +32 14 25 79 82
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