Do you want an abundant harvest? If so, you can improve pollination by making your garden more attractive to pollinators.
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed pollination problems in depth and the FIRST STEP you can take: Eliminate ALL chemicals from your garden.
What other ways can you improve pollination and your harvests? Read on for 3 more practical steps you can take to work with nature for mutually beneficial outcomes:
- Learn to hand pollinate your crops
- Provide insect hotels for pollinators
- Plant bee-friendly flowers
Let’s dive right in!
STEP 2: HAND POLLINATE YOUR CROPS
Pollination occurs when pollen grains from the male anther of a flower are transferred to the female stigma. The flower then produces seeds to create the next generation of plants. We can help this process along by literally giving nature ‘a hand’.
6 Easy Steps to Hand Pollinating
- Identify what kind of plant type you have:
- Some fruiting crops (e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and grapes) are self-pollinating and have a SINGLE BISEXUAL flower with BOTH PARTS: the female (‘pistil’ in the centre) and male (‘stamen’ with pollen covered filaments that surround it).
- Other crops (e.g. cucumbers, watermelon, pumpkin, zucchini and squash) have SEPARATE male and female flowers on the same plant.
- Identify the flowers. Many male flowers have a long stalk whilst the female flowers have a tiny baby immature fruit (‘ovary’) where the stem meets the flower.
- Get out early on a dry day to give your crops a helping hand. Why? Most flower varieties open in the morning but shut up shop by the early afternoon. So timing can be critical and weather can sometimes throw a spanner in the works anyway!
- For SEPARATE flowers, snip the male flower off at the base of the stem. Make sure the petals are fully pulled back or snipped off so the pollen is exposed, not hidden. Gently touch the male flower to the female until you see the pollen has been transferred.
- For SINGLE BISEXUAL flowers with both male and female parts, I use either a small paint brush, old clean makeup brush or cotton bud to make the magic happen. Ah the power of love!
- Now watch and wait while nature takes its course. For that small investment in time, you’ve just increased your pollination chances.
Improve Pollination and Your Harvests
Despite all the attention that honey bees get in relation to their role in pollinating crops, it is the native, solitary or pollen bees that do the lion’s share of the work. There are around 19,500+ bee species on the planet, and of those, around 90% are solitary bees. They are incredibly efficient pollinators because:
- They tend to stay in the same crop feeding rather than flying between different crops, increasing the chance of successful pollination.
- They are untidy pollen collectors. Whilst honeybees wet their pollen with saliva as they collect it to ensure they can carry a heavy load, solitary bees tend to spill a lot of dry pollen as they fly from flower to flower. These sloppy habits work in our favour as they drop pollen exactly where it’s needed, rather than being taken back to their nest to feed their young.
- Both the males and females share the foraging. This is quite unlike honey bees where only the women worker bees do ALL the food gathering and preparation. What’s new? However, the female solitary bees are far more efficient pollinators than males. According to fascinating research*, female solitary bees tend to visit more flowers in less time and collect more pollen than the males. There’s an interesting reason. As male bees head towards the next ‘flower pub’ for another meal (pollen) or drink (nectar), they often get distracted. They stop to mate with lady bees on the way! However, whilst the boys are not as efficient in short distance pollinating, the males do perform a useful role. The longer flight distances males fly may increase the probability of cross-pollination. This is important for seed-set in plants that are not self-pollinating and increases the quality of new generations in self-fertile plants. Looks like nature has everything in perfect balance.
- Solitary bees also fly rapidly so can pollinate more plants!
All good reasons to encourage these wonderfully efficient pollinators to take up residence in your garden.
STEP 3: PROVIDE ‘BED & BOARD’ FOR POLLINATORS
Bees have three key needs:
- Shelter – Solitary bees don’t live in hive homes with large families like honey bees. Around 90% of bee species are native solitary bees who live on their own or in small social groups. Solitary bees prefer a single ‘room’ where they raise their young and rest;
- Fresh water for drinking and bathing;
- Food = nectar and pollen.
If you want to attract more bee ‘guests’ to your garden, you can hang out the ‘welcome sign’ by meeting their needs. These are a few tips to get you started.
“A garden is only as rich and beautiful as the integral health of the system; pollinators are essential to the system – make your home their home.” – Derry MacBride National Affairs and Legislation Chairwoman, Garden club of America
Even if you only have a balcony or small courtyard, I encourage you to dedicate an area to attract bees and other pollinators. This can be as simple as planting a container with flowers, with a water bath next to it and an insect hotel. A micro garden for bees where they can ‘fly thru’ and take away food, have a drink, bath and rest.
CLICK BELOW for bee habitat, flowers for pollen and insect hotel resources
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Insect hotels are simply habitat to provide accommodation for solitary bee species to set up house and have a rest. I practice the “Build it and they will come” concept. This imitates nature where old hollow logs or nooks and crannies in trees quickly become homes for all sorts of creatures. Leaving a little patch of soil bare too will also attract solitary bees who ‘dig’ their dwelling in the ground.
To be sustainable, I prefer to upcycle or reuse materials on hand. Natural fibres and supplies like bamboo; wood; broken pots, bricks or tiles; pine cones; corks; hollow plant stems; corrugated cardboard from old boxes; clay; bark and pruned branches are ideal materials to use. Avoid PVC or other potentially toxic materials.
Bees need protection from hot, wet, cold and windy weather as well as predators like birds and lizards. Position your nesting site to face morning sun with an awning or some kind of cover for protection. This will keep their home dry.
DID YOU KNOW?
“Bees that nest in the ground improve soil quality. Their tunnelling improves soil texture, increases water movement around roots, and mixes nutrients into the soil.” – David Suzuki
Water for Bees
Bees need a local, fresh reliable water source, especially in warm weather. Attract them to your garden by meeting their unique needs. Just as we would find it difficult to stay afloat in a deep pool while drinking a glass of water, bees can easily drown too! A bird bath is fine for our feathered friends, but not suitable for bees unless you make some modifications.
To prevent them drowning while they quench their thirst, you can also add some pebbles (or stepping stones) to a shallow saucer. A sloping side also allows safe entry to bath and drink.
STEP 4: PLANT BEE-FRIENDLY FLOWERS
“Give and Take…
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life
And to the flower, a bee is a messenger of love
And to both, bee and flower,
the giving and the receiving is a need and an ecstasy.”
– Kahlil Gibran
Flowers and bees are made for each other. Bees help themselves to free food; the flowers benefit from their complimentary reproduction service. A mutually beneficial relationship!
What Do Bees Feed On?
1) Nectar (high in sugars and carbohydrates for energy) +
2) Pollen (supplies proteins and fats).
Flowers meet both these needs. Some flowers are only nectar producers, others also provide pollen. I include flowers in every garden bed and most container gardens, especially if I’m planting fruiting crops. Fruit + flowers = Happy harvest.
“Plant a wide variety of native flowering plants and herbs. Diversity is the key to attracting beneficial pollinators. Feed them and they will feed you. It’s win-win.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
TIPS FOR A BEE-FRIENDLY FLOWER GARDEN
- Choose traditional flower varieties particularly those with SINGLE FLOWERS (where you can see the stamens). These flowers tend to have more nectar than modern hybrids. Like everything man interferes with, there are always compromises. Double flowers may look pretty, but unfortunately this often means the stamens have been modified and replaced with more petals, sacrificing the pollen or nectar food for pollinators. If you’re not sure what to buy when you are at your local nursery, observe which flowers the bees are visiting. They don’t waste time or energy on looking for food at ‘empty flower stores’. See Part 1 of this article for tips on avoiding buying flowers treated with toxic neonicotinoids.
- Include a diverse range of flower shapes, colours and sizes. There are many types of bees including native bees, honey bees, bumblebees, mason, leaf cutter, solitary, carpenter, digger and miner bees … and that’s just a few! These species vary in how long their tongues are, so they can feed on a wide range of flowers. Most bees prefer shallow and tubular flowers that have a ‘landing platform’.
- Plant flowers for all seasons. Bees need forage (food) right throughout the year, so ensure you have some flowering species each season.
- Plant flowers and plants of the same type in small groups. This not only looks pretty, but also helps increase pollination efficiency. Grouping makes it easier for bees and other pollinators to locate pollen and nectar producing flowers. If a bee can visit the same type of flower over and over in one place (e.g. in a pot or garden bed), it takes less energy and effort to relearn how to enter that kind of flower. It can just move from one flower to the next of the same species (e.g. pumpkins), transferring pollen as it feeds. This increases the chances for successful pollination, rather than wasting the pollen collected on unreceptive flowers of different species.
- Be colour selective. Something else really cool about bees is they actually have favourite colours. I personally love blues, purples, whites and yellows and have lots of flowering plants in these tones. Lucky for me, bees prefer these colours too! So when you’re choosing flowering plants, crops and flowers, make sure you include these colours.
“If you want to attract a wide range of bees to pollinate your crops and increase your harvest, plant a diversity of flowers. Choose a variety of shapes, sizes and colours to attract different bee species.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
A cottage garden or potager (ornamental kitchen garden) are bee-friendly designs. Why? Many flowers and flowering herbs are utilised. Borders and clumps of flowering herbs and colourful blooms make it quick and easy for bees to locate nectar and pollen. They don’t have to fly as far, so you’re helping them conserve their energy and gather more food to return to their nest.
During an average collection trip, a honey bee visits 50-100 flowers. If you don’t have this many flowers in your garden, bees are likely flying next door to finish shopping for food. If you don’t have room for a lot of flowering species, work with your neighbours to plant for bees.
Favourite Flowers and Herbs For Bees
This is just a brief list of a few flowering plants bees love that you can include in your Kitchen Garden.
Flowers: Sweet alyssum; marigolds; sunflowers; dianthus; cosmos; poppies; zinnias; salvias and lavender.
Flowering Herbs: Oregano; nasturtium; all sages but especially pineapple sage; all basils; thyme; lavender; dill; comfrey; garlic chives; catmint; coriander/cilantro; all mints; lemon balm; rosemary; verbena; borage; yarrow; parsley and fennel.
* ‘Foraging by Male and Female Solitary Bees with Implications for Pollination’ – G. Ne’eman, O. Shavit, L. Shaltiel and A. Shmida, 2006. Journal of Insect Behavior 19(3): 383-401
Click below for bee-friendly garden resources
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Missed Part 1? ‘4 Steps to Improve Pollination & Your Harvests: Part 1’ for the first step – eliminating all chemicals, with tips on hidden nasties to ‘bee aware’ of.
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