Pollinators and Food Gardens

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. estimates that at least 75% of the world’s food crops depend, at least in part, on pollinators. Honey bees and a host of native bees, beetles, and butterflies are essential for pollinating vegetable and fruit crops on farms and in gardens across Maryland. For example, we would have no cucumbers, squashes, muskmelons, or pumpkins without bees.

Squash bees pollinate all cucumber family crops. Photo credit: Jim Jasinski, Ohio State University Extension; bugwood.org

Squash bees pollinate all cucumber family crops.
Photo credit: Jim Jasinski, Ohio State University Extension; bugwood.org

It takes 8-12 bee visits to fertilize enough ovules (baby seeds) to produce full-size fruits. Gardeners get smaller, fewer, and misshapen fruits when bees are unavailable to pollinate some other crops like eggplant, okra, pepper, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry.

Bumblebee drinking nectar from a basil flower. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumblebee drinking nectar from a basil flower.
Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

What can I do?

  • Plant lots of flowering plants (annuals and perennials, especially native species) in borders around, or in, your food garden. Choose plants with a variety of flower color, shape, and size with different flowering times, to provide nectar and pollen through the growing season. Include herbs in your vegetable garden (earlier blog post on anise hyssop and tulsi basil)
  • There are many vegetable, fruit, and herb plants that don’t require bee pollination to produce the edible part(s) that humans are most interested in. But the nectar and pollen in the flowers of these plants (e.g., arugula, broccoli, radish, cilantro, and basil) may be valuable for pollinators.
  • Place a shallow saucer or container of water in your garden with gravel or pebbles for insects to rest on while drinking (change the water twice per week).
  • Avoid using pesticides (including organic pesticides, like pyrethrins, known to be toxic to pollinators). If spraying is necessary, make the application when pollinators are least active (early morning or early evening), don’t spray when flowers are open, use short-residual insecticides that are least harmful to bees

 

Honey bee getting water from a blueberry flower.  A variety of native bees assist also assist in pollination. Photo credit: Jason Gibbs, Michigan State University

Honey bee getting water from a blueberry flower.
A variety of native bees assist also assist in pollination.
Photo credit: Jason Gibbs, Michigan State University

 

Resources:

Pollinators vital to our food supply under threat- FAO news release: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/384726/icode/

Attractiveness of Agricultural Crops to pollinating Bees for the Collection of Nectar and/or Pollen- USDA: https://www.oisc.purdue.edu/pesticide/pdf/crops_pollinated_usda_rpt_2015.pdf

How to Attract and Conserve Pollinators and Natural Enemies in Your Garden- HGIC: https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/how-attract-and-conserve-pollinators-and-natural-enemies-your-garden

 

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

 

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