With the recent news concerning our pollinating insects, many are wondering how to lure pollinators back to their yards. Some vegetables — like tomatoes, peppers, beans and peas— are considered "self-pollinators," meaning their flowers have male and female parts. However, wind and the vibrating buzz of bees help shake the pollen from the male to the female part of the flower, producing a fruit. If you have ever been inside a tomato greenhouse, you may have noticed a hive of bees set up inside and a wand gently shaking the tomato plants — mimicking wind and the vibration of buzzing bees. In your home garden, you may see small native sweat bees or bumblebees, the primary pollinators of tomatoes. Self-pollinating plants benefit from the extra help, and we benefit from the extra fruit it produces.
Bumblebees are most often seen working the flowers of other produce such as squash, cucumbers, watermelon and pumpkins, which depend on insects for pollination. These plants produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The most efficient pollinator of squash and other cucurbits is the squash bee, although cucurbits are also pollinated by sweat bees, leaf-cutting bees and honeybees. If pollinators do not transfer the pollen from the male to the female flower, these plants will not produce fruit.
Attracting pollinators starts in your own backyard. Start by diversifying your vegetable garden. You can attract more pollinators by planting a variety of herbs, vegetables and flowers together. Herbs such as flowering thyme, basil, bee balm, cornflower, dill, sage and lavender all have brightly colored flowers with subtle scents that produce the nectar bees love. And not only are you attracting the beneficial insects, you are benefiting yourself. Think of the pesto made with the basil or the sage-stuffed turkey.
Make your vegetable garden even prettier by adding some flowers, annuals and perennials. A butterfly bush is a sure attractant as are the salvias, coreopsis, larkspur, lantana and an old favorite, zinnias. Make a plan and take care to plant herbs and flowers that will give you the longest bloom time as well as a variety of colors and flower shapes.
Gardeners often order pollinators online or get a hive of bees for their garden. That¹s great, but if there is nothing there to sustain them throughout the year, you may find yourself void of pollinators again next season. Plant for these insects year round. I had bees flittering around in the middle of winter this year.
And be careful with those insecticides. Yes, even organic insecticides may kill our beneficial insects. If you must use them, use caustion. Bees are often seen working flowers during daylight hours, so try to spray in the evenings. And try to avoid spraying when vegetables are flowering. One more thing to avoid ‹ spraying on windy days. Wind drift can carry the insecticide places you never meant for it to go. Remember, many plants can only produce vegetables for us with the help of pollinators. Your pollinators will thank you — with a bountiful harvest.