What's so fascinating about the vanilla pollination process? Well for one thing, the vanilla plants in Mexico and Central America can only be pollinated by the Melipona bee, which is the natural pollinator for the plants.
In East Africa, vanilla plants grow just fine, but Melipona bees are not native to East Africa, so the natural pollinator is totally absent. That means in order to actually bear fruit, the vanilla plant must be pollinated entirely by hand. This is a very painstaking and delicate process, but it's the only way to stimulate the vanilla plant to bear fruit in areas of the world without this particular bee species.
The Melipona is quite distinctive in itself, and there's a good reason why it's the only bee capable of pollinating vanilla plants. There is a tissue in the flower which covers the stem and prevents the vanilla flower from self-pollinating. The pollen on a vanilla orchid is extremely difficult to access, and that means common honeybees are simply unable to reach the pollen. Only the steadfast and persistent Melipona Bee can actually reach the pollen so as to consistently bring about fertilization.
Given the fact that Melipona bees are only native to a few countries in Central America and Mexico, all other vanilla orchid plants must be pollinated by hand. This is in fact one of the reasons why vanilla is extremely expensive, because the pollination process can only take place naturally in a very small section of the world, and everywhere else requires manual pollination.
Hand pollination will generally take place between the months of October and January, since those are the months when vanilla orchids will bloom, in each of the countries where plants have been established. Those orchid plants which are situated anywhere other than Mexico or Central America basically have to be pollinated by hand, using the following process. The secretive parts of the orchid flower must be gently coaxed out, and this penetrates the membrane which separates the anther and pollen from the stigma of the plant.
Then it's necessary to lift a small flap and to press the anther against the stigma, at the same time that seminal pollen is transferred using a sliver of bamboo. Then it's necessary to press the flower firmly to make sure that full contact is achieved and fertilization occurs. When the orchid flower first opens up, it must be pollinated within 12 hours, or fertilization cannot take place.
It seems odd that this procedure is necessary, given the fact that vanilla plants thrive in conditions prevalent in East Africa and Madagascar. Temperature, humidity, and partial shade are all readily available, and flowers open up one at a time. The flowering process takes approximately three weeks, and that means harvesting the bean pods takes the same amount of time.
Madagascar vanilla plants
The vanilla plant itself is actually an orchid which contains vines that may be as long as 10 meters. After the vanilla vine has been planted, three or four years are necessary before it actually flowers and begins to bear fruit. It will continue producing fruit for as long as 10 or 12 years, and then it's production tapers off, and the plant is no longer commercially viable.
Madagascar is home to some of the best vanilla bean pods in the world, but there are no Melipona bees in Madagascar, so all vanilla plants must be hand-pollinated, just like they are in East Africa. Unfortunately, the yellow vanilla flower will only bloom for a single day each year, and it is only receptive to pollination for a few hours during that day. If pollination does not occur while the flower is open and blooming, an entire year will be lost before it blooms again.
Harvesting vanilla beans
After being pollinated, approximately seven to nine months must elapse before the vanilla is sufficiently mature to be harvested. At this point, you'll have green vanilla beans which look very much like elongated string beans. While some harvesters are in a rush to secure the vanilla beans, it's better to leave them on the plant where they can mature longer, because it will produce more concentrated vanilla flavor after the plants have been processed.
Vanilla beans are ranked according to the concentration of vanillin, which is the aroma compound that is so distinctive about the beans. That will also affect the price which can be obtained on the vanilla market. It can be very tricky deciding exactly when to harvest the vanilla beans, because if they're left on the plant too long, it's possible that the bean can burst, and that will always lead to a lower quality bean and of course, a lower market price.
Once the vanilla beans have been harvested, they must go through a lengthy and complicated process, which all serve to enhance the vanillin compound, as well as other flavor components. The first step after harvest is to wash the beans thoroughly, and then immerse them in very hot water. To enhance the flavor components to a desirable state, it's necessary to dehydrate the beans rapidly, and allow them to ferment slowly.
During the course of several weeks, the vanilla will be allowed to dry in the sun during the day, and then it will be packed into airtight containers during the nighttime hours. This is continued until the beans begin to take on a recognizably dark brown color. All vanilla beans are then sorted by quality, based on how moist they are and how long they are, after which they will be stored for as long as six months.
The storage process makes the vanilla bean become much lighter in weight. It will take roughly 6 kg of green vanilla beans to produce just 1 kg of thoroughly processed vanilla. Once the vanilla has been processed in this manner, it will be boxed up and exported to a buyer somewhere around the world.