Who pollinates wild black raspberries?


On the nearly perpendicular hillside behind my house, fighting for space among the ferns and stinging nettles, the wild black raspberries grow. Sweet, intensely purple, and lightly hairy, these berries are my special treat. I collect them every summer, risking their savage recurved spines and the perilous embankment. At the end of each session, my hands are stained with blood and mauve, and my boots overflow with forest duff.

As I do this tedious work, I imagine the possibilities: ganache-covered chocolate cake relaxing in a pool of black raspberry coulis, ice cream the color of violets, or warm toast glistening with berry jam. And don’t forget key lime pie: a tart foundation for mounds of hollow-centered jewels.

So which bee is it?

So on a sunny afternoon last week, armed with a one-quart plastic container that once held yogurt, I ascended the hill. As I picked and cussed and backed nasty spines from my skin, I once again wondered who pollinates the black raspberries.

Since the plant is in the rose family like so many bee-pollinated berries, I assume it is bee pollinated. Every spring I try to catch a pollinator in the act, but nothing stands out. I’ve seen a honey bee or two, an occasional Andrena, and a few bumble bees, but no consistent visitors appear.

I was deep in thought about the mystery bee, my container nearly full, when I stepped backward onto a piece of broken limb. It rolled. I tumbled. In a flash I was sliding backward, head-first down the hill with an earthworm’s view of the firmament. Above me a pair of jays scoffed and jeered at my antics.

As I slid down the embankment, a place that smelled brown and composty, all I could think of was the container: Keep it upright! Keep it level! Feeling like the Statue of Liberty or the Olympic torch bearer, I slid down, down, down with one arm held on high. I watched it, concentrated on it, willed it to stay full.

Saving the berries

When I finally stopped, thanks to a young elderberry bush, I could see my boots silhouetted against the sky. Still, my berry bucket was level and brimming with fruit. Victory!

But the hardest part was yet to come. Turns out it is difficult when you’re upside down, nearly vertical, and holding a container of berries, to flip yourself over with the remaining hand. The ground was too steep to set the container anywhere and it was impossible to sit up. I kept grasping at things that came loose when I tugged. And when they came loose, other things got flicked about. Wiggly things with far too many legs.

Finally I was able to reach a sword fern, a plant with deep and tenacious roots. With the fern in hand I was able to get myself turned around and upright. It was then that I noticed everything in my pockets had fallen out; keys, hive tool, survey tape, and pocketknife had all continued on their journey down the hill without me.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I felt stupid for losing my balance and a little sheepish for prizing my black raspberries above life and limb. But then again, people who think hoards of stinging insects make fun pets are a little bit like that.

Honey Bee Suite


Wild black raspberries, ripe and delicious. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • I have been know to backpack up into the hinterlands of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona just for a handful of wild raspberries. Your description of your downfall is wonderful, especially knowing you survived. But did you ever figure out who the pollinator is?

  • Ever think about transplanting some of these to a more convenient location?

    Seems like it would have to be easier than this. lol

  • Never fail to enjoy your short commentaries of your disasters! Saved the berries, everything else is detail ?

  • In New York State we call them “blackcaps”. Here the insects I’ve seen pollinating them the most–various yellowjackets!

  • Rusty,
    I am six days post-partum with my 5th child, laying around most of the day and wondering how my bees are faring. I have to tell you how much I appreciated this post! It made me laugh and recall similar antics of my own. You betcha I would’ve saved the berries too! Thanks for sharing and brightening my day a bit!

  • You are a true berry forager. I was waiting for a bear to come into the story, too. Thank goodness for the ferns, eh? Good for you keeping the precious berries level. Best wishes from BC.

    • Thanks Sarah. I’ve been picking elderberries, blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries, dew berries, thimble berries, and salal berries. You probably have even more kinds up there.

  • Ha! You tell the story because humor is good for the soul. And because it is the reward for being in a ridiculous situation. And doesn’t beekeeping sometimes lend itself to those situations? Most recently was hive inspection that went awry and I felt the little bee girls climbing up my legs inside my jeans.

    And now I’m thinking there must be some black raspberries around here somewhere …

    • Patrice,

      Bees in the pant legs is the worst. It’s the anticipation that is so bad, I think.

  • Hi, Rusty,

    I am under the impression that Rubus species – contrary to many other rose family plants – are very good at self-pollinating. Maybe that explains why it’s so hard to find pollinators on the flowers?

    Enjoy the coulis!


    • Pedro,

      I believe that is true, but I’ve seen many photos of incomplete pollination in cultivated raspberries and have read that bee pollination sets better fruit. But I don’t know if that holds for the wild varieties. I’d like to know more.

  • Loved the story, Rusty! It’s blackberry season here, and no doubt it takes a special breed to endure scratches, chiggers, mosquitoes, poison ivy and backache for the intensity of wild fruit.

    Our wild raspberries are less abundant, but still well worth the agony. You’ve inspired me to keep an eye on them in bloom season. There’s a clump right behind the mailbox.


  • On the farm where my dad grew up, we used to pick wild black raspberries, or “black caps” as we have called them since we were kids. My brother and I would ride our bikes 8 or 9 miles up over the big hill and down into the valley where the farm still sits, grab our load of ice cream buckets, and take my uncle’s four wheeler up, up, up the hills overlooking the farm to collect our treasure. Our great grandmother would pay us $5 for an ice cream pail full (not a quick job) and they would be transformed into black cap jelly, sweet sauce to be paired with shortbread or biscuits, or homemade black cap almond ice cream. Looking back, I think it must have been the four wheeler ride that put us over the edge: willing to risk life and limb, droves of mosquitoes, strange colored spiders (eew.), and the thorny plants ripping at our skin. It was hot and so humid, and up on top of those hills it felt like we were just a few miles from the sun. With our ice cream buckets tied to our belt loops with bale twine, we’d spend hours making our haul.

    Your story brings back all of those sounds and smells and a similar war story… I recall one time my brother and I were horsing around up in one of the homemade tree stands that was standard issue around the farm. We were both climbing the rickety ladder when, in slow motion, it started to tip over backward with both of us on it. He baled out and landed on his feet but I rode it out and landed on my back in a thick pile of black cap vines and foliage, and sliding down the hill until I was too tangled to even stand up on my own. It was a soft landing, but my white t shirt was covered in little black and red splotches and streaks where smashed berries had helped to pad my fall. My mom didn’t appreciate the stains and we withheld the part of the story about the ladder tipping over until we were quite a bit older.

    I still collect the delectable little treats this time of year and think about the hot July days with our ice cream buckets… appreciating how much time it must have taken us to get all of those berries when, now, I lose patience with the mosquitoes long before I have a bucket full. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Sarah,

      That is a great story. I can just imagine the ladder trick and the berry stains. My husband complains because I have black raspberry stains on the butcher block. But of course he really likes the homemade black raspberry ice cream.

  • When I read the title, I thought you were on about what I’d call blackberries which (at least in the UK) are primarily bumble bee territory. But then I saw the photo. I want to grow some now and see.

    • Dan,

      Where I live, blackberries are our biggest nectar crop. We have several different kinds, some native and some not. They are all over the place. Black raspberries aren’t nearly as common.

  • Okay, I’ll throw in my guess – I vote that it is elves with wings that have tiny paint brushes that fly from raspberry flower to raspberry flower and pollinate the raspberries with the paint brushes… well, okay,,,, maybe I lack a little factual basis on the latter theory.. 😉 My guess is that it is one of the ‘pseudo-bees’ that I see going from flower to flower on my chamomile blossoms (for some reason I don’t see my honey bees bothering with them)?

  • I would so totally do exactly what you did….and I am sitting here smiling because you did it. You saved the berries!! What a trip…so glad you are okay and that none of the inhabitants of Embankment World took a whack at you.

    Enjoy those raspberries…if you can find your keys and get back into your house. And thanks for reminding me what really matters.

    • Thanks, Pat. All is well, although it took a while to find everything. I always have too much stuff in my pockets.

  • Rusty,

    We have Himalayan blackberry “briar patches” in our area near Seattle. I made jam my first summer, and just put up another 8 pints of it two days ago (It rivals honey!) So I have been watching closely. The bumble bee is the primary blackberry pollinator in every patch I have observed on our island, and when I installed my packages in April, that did not change. I counted 10 bumble bees for every honey bee on the 4 main patches within 500 yards of our apiary. But the honeys were there. Honey bees love the blackberries, too. I have sat at the entrance to the hives and looked at the pollen colors as the workers brought it in. During the blackberry bloom, nearly half of the returning pollen foragers had the light grey blackberry pollen on them. I have seen smaller bees pollinating blackberries as well, but I am not as familiar with them, and they are much harder to observe. I have also seen moths and yellowjackets (hornets) on the blackberry blossoms. No hummingbirds.

    • Doug,

      Blackberries are the major nectar crop in this area, but I don’t know which variety the bees like the best. I see a lot of honey bees on the Himalayans.

  • Possibly the best written piece you have done. Bravo. Brought to mind the snowy day I was packing elk meat out, tripped and fell head first down a VERY steep mountainside. Lodged, back down, head first under a snag, I felt like a turtle back side down, thrashing like a goon. You write good girl. Thanks. Oh, our bees are doing well this year. Cooler, more flowers.

    • Renaldo,

      I know that upside down turtle look. My daughter once fell backwards into a creek with her backpack on. I had to go in the water too and turn her over.

    • Mike,

      Have you every examined the pollen on a yellowjacket? Almost nothing. They take the nectar of course, but I don’t think they do much pollinating.

  • The reason black raspberries (as opposed to red or gold),dominate the wild spaces (and therefore are so much enjoyed) is because they carry a disease that kills other raspberries but doesn’t harm them. I learned this when I purchased red and gold and the instructions said, “Do not plant within 100 feet of black raspberries.”

    • Mike,

      I’ve heard about that disease but I didn’t know it applied to wild black raspberries as well as the cultivated ones.

  • Oh, dear! You and I have WAY too much in common. Thanks for a great story. Our wild black raspberry bushes are too far off the beaten path to get much of a chance at observation in the spring, but now that my curiosity is piqued I may remember to get up there. What gets me about these and other berries like them is that each tiny, juicy little sphere can’t develop without their own little pollination event.

    • Katherine,

      Yes, I always think about corn. Even though it is wind pollinated, every kernel requires its own “pollination event.” Awesome to think about.

  • Thanks for the info. I didn’t know yellowjackets could go from blossom to blossom without doing much pollinating.

    • Mike,

      Bees are covered with branched hairs designed to snag the pollen grains. Wasps have a few sparse hairs that are not branched. They sometimes move some pollen around, but it is not significant.

  • Rusty,

    I’ve observed bumblebees on the native blackcaps (Rubus leucodermis) in my backyard. My plants were grown from seed, which turned out to be easy. I found a mutant in the wild that has yellow berries and thought it would be fun to have some like that. Just mush up some berries, add water and rinse most of non-seed parts away in a sieve. Then, put the seeds on the surface of a tray of potting soil, covered with about 1/8″ of sand, and leave the tray outside all winter so they’ll experience conditions similar to what might naturally be encountered. I kept mine on the back porch so hard rains wouldn’t wash the seeds away. Watch it and be sure it never dries out though. Growing them from seed is also a good way to reduce disease transfer. I think next year I may get enough for a batch of yellow raspberry jam. That will be unique!

    • Cal,

      I am going to do this! Thank you for the directions. Also, let us know if you succeed at the yellow raspberries.

  • We have a bunch of black raspberries in the edges of our woods. It’s slow picking, but we had a bumper crop this year and my oldest and I spent a lovely evening picking a couple of quarts [all in one day! instead of over a couple of a weeks]. Ours come on in late June. So delicious! And I would totally have risked life and limb to save the berries.

    • Robin,

      I had no idea there were so many black raspberry fans! I too usually have to pick them over a period of days, but this year they were fat and plentiful.

  • Rusty,

    My yellow-fruited blackcaps are on their third year from seed and bore normally this year. But the plants aren’t yet large enough clumps to produce the quantity I’ll need for a batch of jam. If you’d like to see a couple photos of the mother plant in the wild with its yellow berries and a side-by-side comparison of yellow and purple blackcaps in my palm, I’ll send them. Just need the email.