The vanilla flavor used in many foods comes from an orchid (Vanilla planifolia) that originally grew in Mexico. Herman Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, discovered the pleasant-tasting substance used by the Aztecs, and he introduced it to Europe in the 1520s. But it took 300 years to solve the vanilla mystery.
When the Europeans tried to produce vanilla in their own countries, they could grow the vines, which produced flowers that bloomed one morning each year. However, within 12 hours, the flowers withered and produced no fruit. For three centuries, the vanilla mystery remained unsolved, and the Europeans depended on Mexico for vanilla flavor.
Then in 1836, a French botanist named Charles Francois Morren traveled to Mexico to study vanilla production. He noticed bees landing on the vanilla flower, working their way under a flap in the flower, and becoming dusted with pollen. Then they transferred the pollen to other flowers. Within hours of pollination, the flowers closed, and soon seed pods began to form.
The vanilla mystery solution was known only to those stingless bees of the genus Melipona which lived only in Mexico. They knew how to pollinate the flowers so that they could produce seed pods. The people who attempted to grow vanilla elsewhere tried without success to bring the bees into their areas. Then in 1841, a twelve-year-old slave boy discovered a way to hand pollinate the flowers using a sliver of bamboo. The vanilla mystery was solved!
Because of hand pollination, Indonesia and Madagascar now exceed Mexico in vanilla production. However, hand pollination is labor-intensive and requires constant monitoring of the plants since the flowers stay open for only a few hours. It took humans 300 years to discover how to pollinate the vanilla flower. Before that, only the Melipona bees knew the secret. No other insects knew how to enter those flowers and pollinate them.
Without the bees, there would have been no vanilla plant for humans to discover and use. More important, without the bees, the vanilla vines could not reproduce. Since the orchid could not survive without the bee, the question is, “Who put that bee there and told it how to pollinate that flower?” The vine and the bee could not have evolved separately. That leaves us with another vanilla mystery. Perhaps the bee and the vanilla vine were created to work together. We see this as another evidence of God’s creative work. Think about that the next time you enjoy some vanilla ice cream.
— Roland Earnst and Dave Hart © 2021