Which Garden Veggies Do Bees Pollinate?
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” — Albert Einstein.
So not true, but a good opener for an article on honeybees pollinating our vegetable gardens, right? Not only has it been determined by the experts that Einstein likely never uttered these words, but these words are also like so many others — simply not true. Even if we lose all of our honeybees, we will not, as a nation nor as mankind, starve to death. However, because roughly a third of the food we eat requires bees for pollination, we will be forced to greatly modify our food expectations if science doesn’t provide an alternative. We would eliminate such goodies as squash, cucumbers, and yes, even watermelons. For the time being, however, we still have our bees and our watermelons, so let’s look at what other favorite garden treats the bees will visit this next gardening season.
How pollination works.
Pollination is the process by which pollen grains from a flower’s male structures (anther) transfer onto a flower’s female reproductive structure (pistil) from the same species to produce offspring. This transference of pollen may occur between the reproductive structures of a single flower, between two flowers on the same plant, or even between flowers from different plants.
Pollination is most often accomplished via wind or insects, or a combination of both. Some crops cannot make offspring without the assistance of pollinators, such as cucumbers and watermelons, while wind-pollinated crops, such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn, do not need insects to produce a harvest. And others, such as tomatoes and blueberries, prefer both forms of pollination to have larger yields with higher quality fruits via buzz pollination or the beating of wings vibrating the flower to release pollen from the anther onto the stigma. All forms of pollination are needed to ensure our food supply remains stable and varied. Without one or the other, our dinner plates become bland. (So, no need for hate mail because I disputed Einstein’s theoretical quote.)
Indicators of poor pollination.
Sadly, each gardening season, I receive emails from gardeners lamenting the lack of fruit production. Too often, these gardeners are doing everything correctly with little to no success to show for their efforts. However, when asked about honey bees and other pollinators visiting their gardens, they discover they can find nary the honey bee or pollinator after spending much time observing the flowers. So, if your garden is healthy, pests are in balance with beneficials, soil tests conducted and amendments added as needed, and you still have no or low-quality harvests, suspect an insufficient quantity of pollinators.
Other indicators of poor pollination include flower drop (when not predicated by temperature fluctuations) and bitter fruits, especially in cucumbers. Strawberries and cucurbits such as cucumbers, squash, and melons, will exhibit small, misshapen fruits with low fruit set and low yields. Raspberries, which are self-fertile, still require the assistance of pollinators to ensure quality fruit set with berries crumbling, or falling apart, when insufficient pollination occurs. In a nutshell, always suspect pollination issues if all other aspects of gardening are in order, particularly if only a handful of pollinators are located throughout the garden on any given day.
Protect the pollinators.
What can a gardener do to ensure ample pollination? Aside from raising honeybees, possibly the most beneficial step a gardener can take is to eliminate or greatly reduce the pesticides and fungicides used around the home. Honeybees and other pollinators are susceptible to pesticides that target our garden pests; just like the squash bug, the honeybee is an insect. Fungicides also threaten our honeybees. So, if you must use pesticide or fungicide, first select the least toxic options such as neem oil, insecticidal soap, or the like when applicable. Avoid application just before and during bloom time. Accomplish this by spraying in the early evening when most pollinators retire for the day.
Another essential step in protecting the pollinators and honeybees throughout your garden is to plant suitable pollinator habitats throughout your space. This may include herbs, fruiting vines and trees, hollow stemmed plantings, a water source, and native wildflowers, to name just a few.
While it is not true that we will starve should our honeybees all fade from existence, our dinner plates will indeed become dull and bland without the assistance of our pollinators. And while our bees are not extinct now, this threat of reduced food production is still genuine today within each individual’s garden as honeybees, and other pollinators constantly decrease in size, distribution, and territory. Knowing which plants the bees pollinate, recognizing insufficient pollination, and learning how to ensure proper pollination are all critical components to keeping this summer’s dinner table loaded with firm, juicy tomatoes, enticingly sweet watermelons, and awe-inspiring zucchinis.
Crops that require pollinators for fruit:
- Summer and winter squash
Crops that utilize buzz pollination/pollinators to improve fruit production:
- Sweet Peppers
- Chili peppers
Crops that require pollinators for seed but not fruit:
- Brussel sprouts
- Mustard greens
Crops that do not require insects for pollination:
- Green beans
- Snap beans
- Shell peas
- Snow pea
- Lima beans
- Sweet Corn
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.