The city of Hanyuan, dressed in the finery of the white blossoms on the pear trees, could make us believe in the eternal China with its red and black brick roofs and the grandeur of its foggy landscapes. But don’t let yourself be misled. It was agricultural reform instituted by the “”Great Helmsman”” that made the city the pear capital of Sichuan at the beginning of the 1980s. Perched at 1600 metres altitude, Hanyuan transformed its rice paddies into orchards. At the time, pears sold for 4 to 5 times the price of rice because China had to feed its population, which had tripled in ten years, going from 400 million to 1.2 billion. Today, with 7% of the world’s cultivated land, the country has to feed 22% of the world’s population.
The blossoming period of the pear trees is a crucial season, the one for pollination. Pear trees are auto-incompatible, which means that the trees need a hybrid pollination to produce fruit in good quantity and of a good size. Natural pollinators like bees have disappeared from the valley, killed or chased away by the pesticides that the farmers use on their crops. So, Chinese agricultural engineers replaced the insects with people and hand-pollination has spread in the valley and throughout the province of Sichuan.
In the Cheng Su family’s orchard, they have been busy for several days now. The couple, for whom half their yearly income comes from the sale of five tons of pears, are pollinating one by one the flowers on their trees at a rate of thirty or so trees per day. The husband climbs the trees while his wife takes care of the lower branches, for 5 to 6 hours a day during the hottest hours of the day. This year, the season started late, the snow and cold lasting until early March. The first blossoms opened quickly, just after the thaw. Just as quickly, the family gathered the flowers from the early blooming pear trees in the house’s courtyard to obtain the pollen necessary for the pollination. Once gathered, the pollen is dried under a heating cover. The prepared pollen is in fact a mix of pollen, pistils and stamens and its colour is brown, rarely yellow.”
PBS Nature – Silence of the Bees 2007