Growing up, I would always look forward to biting into the first ripe tomatoes from our backyard garden. Their sweet and tangy flavor makes them a key ingredient in classic dishes around the world, like pico de gallo, tomato egg drop soup, and my personal favorite, Caprese salad.
But their culinary heft isn’t the only fascinating thing about tomatoes. Behind those red and yellow globes glistening tantalizingly at the farmers’ market is a special behavior known as sonication, or “buzz pollination.”
A tomato harvest in the Children’s Garden in 2020. Photo by Ellen McCarthy.
Buzzing can serve many purposes for bees, whether as a defensive strategy or as a method of communication. But some bees also buzz to collect pollen, an ancient interspecies give-and-take that evolved over tens of millions of years.
In a typical pollination scenario, a pollinator (like a bee, beetle, butterfly, or hummingbird) lands on a flower to drink nectar or gather pollen, getting dusted with pollen in the process. When the pollinator moves on to another flower, it accidentally leaves behind some pollen, fertilizing that next plant. Once a flower is fertilized, it produces a fruit filled with seeds that can create a new plant, and the cycle repeats.
While the process is similar for tomato plants, there are some differences. Tomatoes are self-pollinated, for one, which means that only one plant is needed for fertilization. And, like other flowering plants that are buzz-pollinated, a tomato flower’s pollen isn’t readily available—it needs to be vigorously shaken out of its stamen, either by wind or, preferably, by certain species of bees.