How insects help us to make our Chocolate

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When you buy your favorite fairafric chocolate, most of you might not really think about how it originated from a cocoa blossom to a finished chocolate bar. However, it’s worth it, because it’s a process full of surprises – and unexpected helpers.

The cocoa tree – just a tree?

The cocoa’s origin is the cocoa tree – that’s common knowledge. However this is by no means just an ordinary tree, but rather an extraordinary plant, because it has many special features: It can grow up to 20 metres high, but is usually cut to a few metres on plantations in order to harvest the cocoa pods better. By the way, these grow in an unusual way directly on the trunk (this is called stem flowering) and not on the branches, as is the case with other fruit trees. The cocoa tree also loves the location very much: As it prefers very shady places and thrives best in underwood, so-called “cocoa mothers” are planted on plantations. These are very high palms, usually banana palms, which tower many meters above the cocoa suppliers and provide them with shade. An advantage of this interplay of different palm and tree species on cocoa plantations is the resulting natural diversity of species, which provides the cocoa farmers with several sources of income, e.g. through the sale of bananas, coconuts, moringa and much more.

Flowers and bees – and midges!?

But wait, there is more! A cocoa tree blooms throughout the whole year with thousands and thousands of blossoms. The blossoms are not pollinated by bees, like it is known from ordinary fruit trees, but from really tiny midges. These shadow-loving animals can be barely seen with the naked eye and don’t work really effective: Only 4% of the cocoa blossoms are fertilized by them. This is why nowadays cocoa blossoms all over the world are fertilized manually. Therefore, we have so called “Extension Officers“ on our plantations. The farmers of the Yayra Glover action group get workshops from those “Extension Officers“. They travel from village to village and increase the quality and income of the farmers by learning them the best way to fertilize cocoa blossoms. This is how we realize a high return from our cocoa trees.
Unfortunately, this is not enough: Even if the cocoa blossoms’ fertilization was successfully, it doesn’t mean we get a cocoa bean. More than half of the cocoa fruits don’t mature and die off. There are various reasons for this like drought, humidity, fungal attacks, insects, the wrong light and so on. That is why the tree blooms throughout the whole year and bears fruit simultaneously. A tree which can bloom and bear fruit at the same time is by the way a botanical rarity.

What bees have to do with organic farming and why they have a share in our chocolate

In the meantime, it is well known that organic farming has many advantages and that not only nature but also people benefit from it. The move away from monoculture cultivation offers many advantages for a wide variety of beneficial insects and plant species. Climate protection through the reduced use of fossil fuels, the avoidance of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers for better soils as well as consumer and species protection are just a few of these advantages. In Ghana, organic cultivation on our bio-plantations means even more. The deliberate elimination of chemicals, not only on the plantations but also in the cocoa stores, has far-reaching consequences: The aluminium phosphide, a highly toxic neonicotinoid for bees, used especially in cocoa stores, also has a devastating effect on other insects, apart from bees, and thus also on pollination and the economic performance of the surrounding plantations. Not to use these toxins is not only good for unpolluted drinking water. It also means that we maintain a healthy biodiversity on our plantations and that our cocoa farmers can safely plant bee colonies on the plantations. This does not help the cocoa tree, but all the surrounding plants, which are traditionally pollinated by bees. And for cocoa farmers, beekeeping is an additional source of income. So the bees still have a share in our chocolate.

Final little knowledge for cocoa (tree) friends:

  •  It takes about 2-3 years until a cocoa tree blooms for the first time.
  • The blossom of the cocoa tree resembles an orchid
  • It takes an average of 100,000 flowers to produce 50 ripe cocoa pods.
    Cocoa trees do not bear fruit outside 20° north and 20° south latitude
  • The genome of the cocoa bean genotype Matina 1-6 has been decoded by more than 90% and is available to everyone on a website (https://www.cacaogenomedb.org).
  • The best harvests are obtained at a constant temperature of 25° – 28° Celsius.
  • The maturing of a cocoa pod takes about 5-6 months.
  • The flesh of the cocoa pod can be pureed and drunk