By JEFF NACHTIGAL
The Associated Press
February 4, 2011, 3:48AM ET
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — California orange growers plan to begin harvesting a new variety of seedless mandarin orange this month that they think will appeal to consumers and lower their expenses.
The most popular varieties of mandarins, such as Satsuma, are self-pollinating and don’t need help from bees to produce fruit. But, their flowers still attract bees carrying pollen from other citrus varieties, and contact with that results in seeds in the fruit. To prevent this, growers net the trees to try to hold off the bees.
They won’t have to do this with the new Tango mandarin. The trees are sterile, so even if bees pollinate their flowers, seeds are unlikely to develop.
When bees landed on the Tango’s blossoms during field tests, it produced 10 times fewer seeds than other varieties, said Mikeal Roose, a University of California, Riverside genetics professor who led development of the Tango.
“It’s probably the best piece of fruit that’s come along for years for citrus growers,” said Ted Batkin, president of the California Citrus Research Board, which supported the research.
The Tango was developed from the popular W. Murcott mandarin and tastes identical, but Roose said it’s a big improvement.
It’s like “a new car with all the details of the previous year’s model, but one that gets 10 miles more to the gallon,” he said.
The Tango took more than a decade to develop. Roose and citrus researcher Timothy Williams started irradiating hundreds of W. Murcott buds in 1995 to make them sterile. They used grafting to create numerous trees to see what kind of fruit they produced and then began testing them. The best of the bunch they named Tango.
UCR released its creation to California nurseries in 2006. Jackie Maxwell, who owns a wholesale citrus nursery in Bakersfield, said when her Tango trees were old enough to sell in 2009, commercial growers bought “tens of thousands,” cleaning out her inventory.
California’s orange growers have planted more than 1.6 million Tango trees to date.
Six Florida citrus nurseries are in varying stages of propagating Tango trees. Florida received its first Tango branches in 2007, one year after California, and the state’s citrus quarantine process slowed distribution of the variety. Tango mandarins from Florida will arrive in the eastern part of the U.S. in 2014, said Peter Chaires, director of the Florida New Varieties Development and Management Corporation.
California’s mandarin and tangerine acreage has more than doubled to 33,000 acres since 2002. But as it grew, so did the tension between orange growers and beekeepers in California’s Central Valley. Commercial beekeepers truck in colonies of honey bees during the spring to pollinate almond orchards and other crops.
But bees carrying pollen from other citrus varieties also land on otherwise seedless mandarins, creating seeds that reduce the fruit’s value. The nets farmers use to prevent that account for about one-quarter of their production costs.
With orange growers threatening to sue beekeepers, the California Department of Food and Agriculture stepped in to create “Seedless Mandarin and Honeybee Coexistence” rules and settle disputes in Madera, Fresno, Kern, and Tulare counties. The regulations didn’t go far enough to protect seedless varieties, but the Tango could help, said Bob Blakely, California Citrus Mutual director of industry relations.
“If the Tango proves to not produce seeds under bee pressure, it may eliminate some of the production costs for nets,” Blakely said.
Although the citrus industry is excited about the Tango, consumers probably won’t even be aware of it. That’s because retailers plan to sell Tangos under existing brand names.
For example, Mulholland Citrus, based in Orange Cove, Calif., packages W. Murcott and Tango together under its “Delite” brand name because they taste the same, said Fred Berry, sales marketing director.
The strategy is much the same at Sun Pacific, which sells mandarins under the brand name Cuties. Its Tango harvest will be small this year but grow as the trees mature, and all new trees it plants will be Tangos, general manager Al Bates said.
Phillip Rucks, who runs the biggest citrus nursery in the country in Frostproof, Fla., will ship his first round of Tango trees to growers in Florida’s fabled Indian River district this summer.
“We think the Tango is going to be big hit,” he said.