The Supply Chain of Pollen

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Though it may sound like an odd subject, nature and manufacturing do work together in some sort of hybrid supply chain. What got me thinking about this, was when I returned home to Atlanta from a recent trip. Upon arrival at my car in the airport parking garage, I encountered this sight:

My car looked as if someone had emptied a few containers of yellow-green baby powder all over it. Ah yes, a fact of living in the U.S. Southeast, pollen season. Our pollen counts typically hit the thousands in the spring. Mind you, a count of 120 or higher is where people start to feel irritation. This is the price we pay for all of the gorgeous flowering trees and plants that bring a huge burst of color each spring, and then on through the growing season. These tiny grains that look like alien life forms, can range from .006 mm to .090 mm and find a way to invade every possible space inside and out. They are a necessary part of the circle of life for the plant world. Some plants self-pollinate, others require external stimuli to reproduce. There is also cross-pollination, where the mixing of plant genetic material produces some sort of hybrid.
So what does all of this have to do with supply chain? The plant reproductive process is really a self-contained supply chain of its own, but that is not the larger story. 20% of plant pollination is abiotic, meaning some external event like wind or water causes pollen to reach its target. The other 80% is biotic, where an external organism needs to be involved in the transfer of pollen to its intended target. Most of these pollinators are insects, but there are also some species involved like birds, bats, squirrels, rodents and even some monkeys. Surprisingly, there is a supply chain when it comes to pollen and the process of pollination. The next time you bite into an apple, or enjoy the taste of an almond, you are taking advantage of the end of the supply chain. Commercial orchards in upstate New York, the massive California almond orchards and the blueberry fields of Maine employ tens of thousands of hives of US honeybees to enhance the pollination process. Other species of bees are used to pollinate crops such as cucumber, melon, strawberries, and the alfalfa fields of western Canada. The growers require an ever increasing demand for hives. Since demand for these hives exceeds supply, growers must manage the availability of the hives in order to get an optimal and bountiful harvest of their crops. As a “manufacturer” of crops, the grower not only has to worry about the normal goods required to produce the crops, like seed, water, fertilizer and pest control. They also have to worry about the key manufacturing component that turns their “raw materials” into finished goods, like an apple. It is obvious that crops will grow and get pollinated on their own, just as they always have. In order to maximize the manufacturing output, of say, an orchard, the introduction of the hives is required. Now there is a variable component to the growing season. The bees become one of the raw materials, managed by the beekeepers, (the suppliers), which are in demand by the growers, the manufacturer. The crop output may be dictated by the availability of the pollinators. As a beekeeper, one would have to be able to meet the demand for the hives, by maintaining and generating more of them. Mathematical models are used to determine the optimum plant-pollinator relationship, and even scenarios are run to see what happens when environmental conditions such as storms and drought can affect the ability of the bees to perform their tasks. Artificial stimuli such as chemicals may be introduced, to “incentivize” the bees into performing even a greater pollination effort. We have a natural agricultural cycle for the production of crops, which in itself is a supply chain, and also part of a larger supply chain. Within that agricultural cycle, there is the supply management of pollinators where required, which generates a set of supply chain concerns. The beekeepers, in producing their own product, hives, have a supply chain to manage as well, in terms of raising the bees, keeping the bees fed, increasing the number of hives, transporting those hives to a destination, having the bees perform optimally, and then gathering them for their next mission. That is how the beekeeper makes a living. So the next time you sneeze due to allergies, remember that the pollen in the air is part of a complicated ecological supply chain that keeps us nourished, and also delivers the beautiful flowers we see each spring.

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