Garnock’s Buzzing Wobbly Apple Experiment

I’m Lorna Cole an ecologist and Wildlife and Conservation Management lecturer at SRUC. Like many parents, I have suddenly found myself plunged into unchartered territory – working from home whilst trying to home-school two teenagers. All this whilst coping with the global pandemic that surrounds us all. Clearly as an ecologist my potential to help fight ‘the virus’ is limited … let’s say non-existent. This made me think – what can I do to help others? 


Eventually I came up with the idea of bringing an experiment on apple pollination to the hordes of bored children (and adults!) stuck in the house. This experiment, originally designed by Koos Biesmeijer from Naturalis, explores how insect pollinators influence the quality and taste of apples. This experiment gives us huge potential to educate youngsters of the value of insect pollinators as well as generate data on apple pollination from across the globe.

In the UK apples are an important crop with production contributing approximately £100 million annually to our economy (Vanbergen et al. 2014). While some plants can pollinate themselves, apples rely heavily on cross pollination needing insects to transfer pollen from one tree to another. Bumblebees, honeybees, solitary bees and hoverflies all visit apple blossoms increasing both yield and quality (Garratt et al. 2014). The diverse range of insects that pollinate apples contribute over £88 million annually to apple production (Vanbergen et al. 2014).

When an insect successfully pollinates apple blossom, a seed is produced. The number of seeds in an apple therefore provides a measure of pollination services. Apple trees that are not adequately pollinated (i.e. experiencing a pollination deficit) produce fewer apples and fruit that is smaller and misshapen (Garratt et al. 2014). There is even evidence that well pollinated apples are sweeter!

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With insect pollinators struggling to survive in many parts of the world, concerns are growing that pollinator declines could influence food security.  Using seed count as an indicator of pollination services, we are hoping our experiment will shed light on pollination deficits in apples and how these vary across the world. The experiment also aims to determine how pollination influences the quality of fruit – which is why we measure how wobbly the apple is and how good it tastes. By using a citizen science approach, we are hoping to be able to get a vast amount of data – without a huge research budget!

Managing orchards in a pollinator-friendly way is likely to result in higher apple yields and better-quality fruit that achieves a higher market value. Thus providing habitat and forage for pollinators is likely to benefit apple growers and biodiversity. Apple trees tend to flower in spring and their blossom provide important early season forage. However, with blossoms quickly disappearing, orchards can lack forage in summer and autumn. To combat this growers should consider how they increase forage to sustain pollinator assemblages throughout the season. This may be through including later flowering crops such as raspberries, planting flower rich areas or simply reducing mowing to encourage wildflowers to bloom.

The work is being carried out by SRUC as part of the Garnock’s Buzzing project. Garnock’s Buzzing is one of 25 projects being undertaken by Garnock Connections, a landscape partnership funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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