Tomatoes image via Shutterstock

If you take a bunch of very smart, passionate science geeks, deprive them of sleep, fill them with booze, and put them in a room together, the conversations can take some pretty wild turns. That's what happened earlier this year, when I attended ScienceOnline 2012, an annual gathering of science journalists, bloggers, scientists, librarians, public relations officers, and other people who are in the business of communicating about science on the web.

One night at the bar I found myself talking to a few people about inter-species sexual shenanigans, when Bug Girl revealed the naughty secret of how greenhouse tomatoes get made.

Tomatoes, she told us, respond best to what’s called buzz pollination. This is when a bumblebee or other species of solitary bee grabs onto a plant and moves their flight muscles rapidly, vibrating the plant and dislodging the pollen. Some of the pollen lands on other parts of the same plant so it can self-pollinate, and still more covers the bee, who can then transfer it to another plant for cross pollination.

Some greenhouse tomato growers keep bees “on staff’ for this purpose, but in situations where solitary bees aren’t readily available—in Australia, for example, where bumblebees aren’t native and there’s a long history of problems with introduced species—people have to get creative.

DIY

Some greenhouse growers use short, vibrating sticks called “industrial pollination wands,” but if the budget doesn’t allow for that or they aren’t available, Bug Girl said, a personal vibrator will do in a pinch. I’ve found at least one instance where growers had to resort to this, and weren’t ashamed to talk about it. One year, at the Marquita Farm in Watsonville, CA, money was tight and the six pollination wands they needed would have set them back a few hundred dollars. Luckily, one worker knew a place where they could get vibrators on the cheap. The farm ordered a whole case, taped some drinking straws to them to make a small, shaky wand, and set about tickling the tomato plants with sex toys.