By Dorothy Morganna
At Cacao Source, we believe that high quality Cacao comes from biodiverse, healthy forests. In this article, we will investigate the pollinators whose vital role in the production of Cacao is often overlooked. Their tiny, yet mighty, role in Cacao has everything to do with maintaining the entire web of life.
Theobroma cacao is the plant we use to grow ceremonial Cacao, but it is also used for the cocoa/chocolate industry as well. It’s important to note that there are many integral teachings from Cacao, including the way it is grown, that could offer huge insight to the cocoa industry, which is laden with exploitation.¹
For each pound of Cacao we produce, there are about 12 Cacao pods needed to produce that one block. Behind every Cacao pod, there is a flower— a teeny tiny little flower, about the size of your pinky finger nail (1-2 cm in diameter). Who could possibly be small enough to pollinate such a tiny flower?
Ladies and gentlemen, Cacao lovers of the world, lo and behold, let me introduce you to one of the smalleest creatures of the the animal kingdom, lesser known, but very very important: the Midge!
Who are the Midges?
The midge is a tiny fly, only 1-3 millimeters long, and yet it is entirely responsible for the $48 billion dollar cocoa industry. It is one of the smallest insects in the world, with its wings beating 1000 times per second! At that size and speed, the air’s viscosity is like honey, and the midge is seemingly “swimming” in the thick, damp jungle air. Welcome to the world of the midge! Because the Cacao flowers are so small, the midge is the only creature small enough to crawl inside to pollinate them.
Many plants, including Cacao, need the assistance of a pollinator to mature from flowers to fruits. There are some misconceptions about who pollinates Cacao. Bees are not Cacao pollinators. Though these species may visit the Cacao flowers, this does not necessarily count as pollination.² Biting midges from the Ceratopogonidae family and gall midges from the Cecidomyiidae family are the two most important known cacao pollinators worldwide.³
These tiny midge flies have a big responsibility.
Challenges in Cacao Pollination
One of the big challenges, however, is the generally low pollination rates observed globally in cocoa plantations. (Wild, diverse Cacao agroforestry systems have not been studied.) Scientific estimates for fertility rates vary from 0.3% to 10%.⁴ This means that out of thousands of flowers on a tree, only a few dozen could actually bare fruits. In one study, it was shown that Cacao pollinated by hand significantly improved the amount of fruit.⁵ (Can you imagine a world where we didn’t have pollinators and all of the Cacao flowers needed to be pollinated instead by hand?) This study shows us that it really is a challenge with effective pollination. Therefore, we need to look to solutions that support the midges.
What do midges need?
Many world crops are pollinated by honey bees, so the answer for pollination is simple: look after the needs of the bees. Cacao is different, however, in that its pollinator, the midge, is actually considered a wild pollinator.
The midge thrives in the jungle habitat where it is cool, shady, where there are various floral resources, and especially where there are small pools of standing water. This is where the midges lay their eggs. Evidence shows that Cacao flowers are not the midge’s only food source.⁶ These points on the habitat requirements of the midge raise an excellent reasoning for biodiverse agroforestry systems from which we source our Cacao with Cacao Source.
Alarmingly, wild pollinator species are declining due to the conversion of natural habitat to agricultural land and pesticide use.⁷ No pollinator means no chocolate, cocoa, nor Cacao. Unlike the diverse forests where we source our Cacao from, most cocoa plantations tend to grow in monoculture. There are no overstory canopies, so the climate tends to be hot, dry, and sunny. A lot of the understory habitat that the midge uses for breeding is removed. And most importantly, these monocultures use pesticides, which are very harmful to the tiny insects.
How can we keep the midges happy and vibrant?
The first solution is to learn as much about the midge as possible to find the best ways to understand and protect their habitat.
Then, we need to recreate their habitat within the bounds of where cocoa/Cacao is grown. Some farmers around the world are doing just that.⁸ Evidence shows that improving midge habitat can increase fruit yield.⁹
There are a few adjustments that can greatly improve the pollination rates of their crops.¹⁰ One way is to leave the empty cocoa/Cacao husks on the ground. The midges are not only attracted to the scent, but husks also fill with rain water and produce an excellent breeding habitat.
Another solution that is emerging is to grow cocoa/Cacao near natural rainforest ecosystems.¹¹ This way, the cacao orchards are nearby all of the resources that they need the most– plenty of pockets of water, flowers blooming, and cool shade. This is a long-term solution to Cacao pollination that supports both nature and humans!
Nature always finds ways to come back into balance. As humans, we need to learn from nature and to adapt to design solutions moving forward that work with nature. In the case of Theobroma cacao and the midge, it comes down to whole system approaches and valuing all of the ecosystem from where Cacao comes from. This means understanding the small pieces and how they are part of the bigger picture. With Cacao Source, we value wild, diverse nature that holds space for all of these pieces.
¹ In this article, we will use the word “cocoa” to refer to explicitly the industrial cultivation and processing of Theobroma cacao (often used for the chocolate industry). We will use the word “cacao” to refer to Theobroma cacao in general.