Bees get a bad rap. They sting, they buzz, they're portrayed as rogue killing machines by the late John Belushi. But their absence might be the reason why you're not seeing any fruit on your cucumber and squash plants right now. That can spell real disappointment after a whole season watching your gorgeous plants grow nice healthy green leaves, and beautiful flowers, only to see the flowers shrivel and fall off the plant.
Plants such as cucumbers, melons, and squash have two kinds of flowers, a male flower, which looks like a regular flower, and a female flower, which has the hint of fruit at the end of the bloom. If one doesn't share pollen with the other, away goes the fruit.
"There are a few reasons why bees aren't pollinating your plants," says Randel Agrella, seend production manager for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. "One reason may be as simple as the bees not finding your plants. This is a big problem in urban areas, but also it can sometimes happen in rural areas and the bees just don't find the plant for some reason." Agrella recommends putting what he calls "bee food" around the plants that need to be pollinated: lemon balm, basil, and anything from the mint family.
Another reason is a more somber one. Colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where worker bees from a beehive or colony suddenly vanish, has led to an abrupt decline in the bee population in the U.S. as well as in many other countries. CCD has been linked to pesticide use, which has led the European Union to temporarily ban certain pesticides in hopes of seeing an increase in the number of bees. Kind of makes you want to hug a bee, if it weren't so keen on stinging you in the process.
Check to see if bees are pollinating your plants by looking for them in the morning hours. If you see bees, there you go. If you don't, Agrella has a helpful tip to pollinate them yourself: "Take a Q-Tip and swirl it into the opening of the male flower, and then swirl the same Q-Tip in the female flower. You should see fruit. The same can be done with a soft paintbrush, or even by just picking off one of the male flowers and sticking it in the female flower manually. And although "sticking it in," is not the preferred group of words for such undertakings, such is the literal and unfortunate science of life.
But before you go swirling a paint brush into a tomato or pepper plant, rest assured that such plants are self-pollinating. You can help the pollination along but usually air flow will do this job. Agrello says, "If you're not getting fruit on a tomato plant, it might be too hot for the plant to set fruit. The pollen when it gets too hot becomes sticky and unusable." Agrello suggests trying out a shadier spot.
Hot pepper plants are usually able to withstand higher temperatures, so if flower drop is the issue you have with hot peppers, it might be an excess of nitrogren in the fertilizer, an issue of over-watering, inconsistent temperatures, or possibly the plant is in too small of a pot to grow properly.
Hopefully after some troubleshooting, you'll wake up to a shiny little piece of fruit growing on your deck or balcony or concrete space by the garage. And regardless of the plant or the issue, bees are something we could all use more of, so please set out some flowers, some mint, or some basil, and attract and make thrive as many little John Belushis as you can.