Foreword by Chris Kornman
The story of Alfred Klein and Royal Coffee is a long one, best heard in the words of Don Alfred himself, and that of Royal’s cofounder Bob Fulmer. Bob and I struck up a brief conversation about the coffees and the farm a couple of years ago, which led to, among other things, a window into a farmer with a deep and abiding concern for his environment and a colossal streak of bad luck. The story weaves between a price crisis in the 1990s, a rust outbreak, windstorms, hailstorms, landslides. You can check out the 3-part blog series to read the full version.
In recent years, however, Don Alfred’s microlots evidence the brighter side of the story – clean, elegant, and uncommon in flavor they hint at the attention to detail and care with which Finca San Carlos is run. A regular fixture on the Crown Jewel menu, the Jade Centennial lot remains near the top of the list of Mexican coffees we’ve ever enjoyed. In the meantime, when Don Alfred isn’t chatting with us about migration, banana boats, or the dwindling resistance of coffee to fungus, he’s managed to put together a fascinating treatise on the relationship of bees to coffee. It’s with a great deal of pleasure that we’re sharing it here, in full.
The appearance of bees took place during the Cretaceous Period, 130-135 million years ago, evolving in response to one of nature’s basic principles: no waste.
Prehistoric plants had to produce vast amounts of pollen to reach other plants, mostly using the action of the wind; less than 0.01% of pollen induced successful pollination.
Evolution, at its best, arrived with a great solution called insects. Pollen is what we might today call a super food (for insects). Flying prehistoric insects feeding on pollen eventually started to drop grains of pollen on different plants, enhancing pollination.
Plants didn’t take much time (relatively speaking, only some millions of years) to evolve and create flowers to attract insects and receive the benefit of pollination. With this evolution, our entire earth changed. Color, shape, pattern, smell, and even delicious, sugar-rich nectar became the hallmark of plant success — and in consequence, that of insects and bees too.
Bees evolved very successfully from those primitive flying insects, and have been feeding and gathering nectar and pollen from then until now. It is thought that during periods when prey was scarce, early wasps fed their offspring purely on pollen, which is how bees came to be.
Bees then developed a pollen basket — called corbicula — an additional formation of the tibia on the hind legs used to harvest and carry effectively pollen to the hive. Other bees that lack a corbicula evolved scopae instead, which are electrostatically charged hairs to which the pollen adheres. One innovation unique to bees is that adult females gather food for their offspring. During larval stage they are entirely dependent on the food provided by adult bees.
The oldest known bee, melittosphex burmensis, was found in 2006, encased in prehistoric amber in Myanmar. It is estimated to be about 100 million years old, and measures roughly one-fifth the size of a honey bee and similar to wasps. Analysis of the DNA sequence indicates that bees started to evolve around 130 million years ago shortly after first flowers appeared during the Cretaceous Period.
Early bees evolved into highly successful pollinators and have to be credited for a substantial amount of the pollination occurring on earth. Some of them are so highly specific that many flowering plants such as some species of orchids will disappear with the absence of these bees — or to the contrary, these plants would never have evolved without them.
Nearly 400,000 flowering plants are known, and perhaps as many as 90% need pollinators to reproduce. Roughly 70% of all known commercial crops need pollinating. Science states that as many as 200,000 (and decreasing) different pollinating species exist, of which the vast majority are insects.
Among those plants that can produce fruit without cross-pollination is coffea arabica, as well as many citruses, stone fruits, mangos and others, this is called selfing. Selfing — or self-fertilization — is the union of male and female gametes and or nuclei from same haploid, diploid, or polyploid organism. It is an extreme form of inbreeding. Selfing is widespread from unicellular organisms to the most hermaphroditic plants and animals (mostly invertebrates).
If not for this selfing form of pollination we probably would never have seen hectares-upon-hectares of coffee monoculture, (and terrible coffee prices) with no shade or ground cover depending on the big amounts of external inputs and watering needs. These types of plantations (not only coffee plantations of course) are the closest thing to a biodiversity desert and killing field for all kinds of animals and insects except maybe for plagues as coffee borer (broca) and stem borer.
Yet coffee plantations can also be found inside biodiversity hotspots. Coffee plantations managed traditionally provide great habitats for bees and insects from the Hymenoptera order (pollinating insects), in addition to many other animal species. However, coffee trees only provide food in the form of nectar and pollen for bees during flowering season — at most a few weeks per year. Flowering weeds, trees, and shrubs provide enough food even in the most heavy rainy season for bees to establish all over these plantations. If plantations include patches of forest, wetlands, intertwined diversity ‘islands,’ and other means of maintaining or creating natural habitats, then bees will be around.
Different studies show that coffee can produce up to 20% more beans when they are visited by pollinating insects. It is hard to believe that a single colony of honey bees (apis mellifera) containing around 25,000 foraging or working bees can visit and potentially pollinate 250 million flowers per day at the least. What’s the math here? Sounds unreal — but it is not.
One single bee can visit from 50 to 1000 flowers per trip. A trip consists of collecting nectar and pollen, and then carrying the load back to the hive. The closer the hives are to the coffee trees, the more pollinating effects and trips increase. So back to very conservative math: if one single bee visits an average of 10,000 flowers a day X 25,000 bees = 250 million visited flowers.
The actual potential of pollination is much, much higher in number of flowers taking into consideration that certainly there will be more than just on hive and many other solitary bees established in the surroundings, and that bees make many foraging trips per day depending on the amount of food available and weather conditions.
Coffee flowers will wilt by mid day, and by then most of them are probably fertilized already, their nectar sucked or dried out. They then pose no more interest for pollinators, so these hard working creatures turn to other available flowers.
Coffee flowerings usually occur during 2 or 3 subsequent days, roughly on the first day of flowering 50% of the flowers will open 30-40% on the second and the rest on the last day. Going back to simple conservative math. 1st day = 250 million flowers, 2nd day 87.5 million and 25 million on the last day totaling 362.5 million flowers can potentially be visited by pollinating insects. In Central America normally there are 3 flowering events during the season although this can be severely affected by prevailing climatic conditions, especially the absence of sporadic rain during the dry season, which is the single most important impulse for the induction of flowering.
Maybe some coffee buyers have asked themselves what or which ones might be the reasons for quality of a coffee cup. Varieties is by far the most important reason, as well as plantation setup, management, and processes playing a definite role too. Why is the coffee from small plotters worldwide, which is environmentally-sound grown coffee — organic or eco farmed, planted under shade tree cover, traditionally managed and where the least amount of chemical inputs is used — different and more consistent and definitively better?
The reason points directly towards the plantations natural surroundings and/or created environment, and thus the formation of habitat for pollinating insects. Cross pollination provided principally by insects (and more effectively by honey and stingless bees) is the transfer of pollen from one flower to another of the same plant or to flowers of another plant of the same species or even other species and varieties (such as with the Timor Hybrid). Cross pollination induces genetic factors that derives in many forms of quality and yield. “Bad” varieties, such as old Catimors, get a substantial amount of benefit in overall quality when they are subject to cross pollination in traditional plantations were they grow side by side with a diversity of different varieties of coffee.
Recent studies made in Germany with apples show that those trees visited by insects had the highest yields and best flavor, color, form, and overall quality. Trees pollinated manually had reduced yields and general less quality, and non-pollinated apple trees produced oversized soft dull-flavored and seedless fruit. If it works for apples, why shouldn’t the same apply to coffee.
For many growers 20% more coffee could mean the difference between making or losing money, or even going out of business. If you take into account the fact that pollinating insects don’t charge for the service, it is almost irrational not to care for bees. These does not mean that you turn into a beekeeper; it’s as simple as providing habitat for bees and soon they will arrive by themselves.
Maybe cross pollinated coffee by bees from species like melipona, apis, scaptotrigona, euglosa, trigona, or many others from Asia and Africa are the selling hit of the future. What if the buyer or the conscious consumer is willing to pay more to growers that do something for bees — to keep them from extinction and at the end keeping humanity from starvation?
Finca San Carlos