Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To Bee or not to Bee............


Welcome to my Dubai based gardening blog about growing vegetables in containers in the UAE and the Arabian Gulf region.

Ok, so I think I'm a comedian.  Anyway, I recently received a comment the other day on an older blog I did in April 2011 - What vegetables should you plant.    Bradder asked:  Hi, I have a question for you - I was wondering whether I have to pollinate my flowers by hand?  I haven't seen much in the way of bees etc (I'm in the Springs) and concerned now my aubergines and tomatoes are flowering that they will come to naught!  Thanks.

This brings up a point that I would like to mention.  Do not kill ANY honey bees as they are having a tough time around the world surviving for some mysteries reason as I have blogged about in the past here and here.   If some bees decide to make a home in your garden - just leave them alone and they won't bother you.  The little local arabian bees are very docile and you will learn to be able to get very close to them to observe them and they don't mind.  The only exception to this is if you have small children that can reach a bee hive and are too young to understand that the bees can hurt them - then try to find a way to make them leave without killing to many of them.

So, I'll get off the soap box now.  If you do not have any bees buzzing around your vegetables flowers then YES you will need to start buzzing around  some of your vegetables yourself if you want a better harvest.  It might bee a good idea to dress the part so your plants do not get confused as to who is handling their reproductive bits.

Killer Bee CostumeBumble Bee Costume

But, before you start buzzing your vegetable plants you need to know a few things first to take the sting out of it. :-)

If you do not have any bees helping you out in your garden then you might not need to be so worried as not all vegetable plants need to be hand pollinated - some can take care of themselves.  Yes, the bees do help but it is not absolutely necessary for some vegetable plants.  On the other hand some vegetables need all the help they can get with pollination.  So, which one is which?

Some vegetables such as tamaters, peppers, eggplant and legumes (peas & beans) have self-fertilizing or complete flowers.  The flower has both the male and female parts (bisexual) in the same flower and they can take care of themselves up to a point.  It is always helpful, especially with tamaters, to shake or vibrate the plant to encourage a little sexual activity.  Some even go so far as to use an electric tooth brush and go around vibrating each flower on their tomato plants.  You can find example of this on You Tube.  With eggplants (aubergines) it is better to help it out a bit.  Get a small soft watercolor paint brush or a Q-tip (cotton bud) and rub it around gently inside the flower to help with moving around the pollen and increasing your chances of fruiting.

On the other hand, some vegetables, especially the cucurbits (squash, melons, pumpkins, zucchini and cucumbers) need all the help they can get to pollinate as they produce separate male and female flowers.  So, without bees and insects helping, you pretty much will find yourself playing doctor - the sort of  "I'll show you mine if you will show me yours" kind of stuff.  Watermelon plants are a perfect example, with long vines spreading through the garden, lots of flowers every day, and not a single fruit. The squash plants, too, produced lots of blooms without anything edible in sight if they are not being pollinated - either by bees & insects or by you doing hand pollination. 

When your vegetable plant produces both male and female flowers, the key is to find the females so that they can be pollinated. The female blooms have an immature vegetable just under the flower, so if you look closely you will see a miniature squash, melon or cucumber. This is the easiest way to be sure you have a female flower (not the case with tamaters & peppers - being bisexual you can't be sure what you are looking at).  The centers of the flowers are also different, so with larger flowers such as squash, you can quickly distinguish between male (only one thing sticking out) and female (something much more complex - of course) by looking into the flower. This is not easy with a tiny flower like those on cucumbers and melons, so stick with looking for the baby looking fruit underneath the flower.  Once you've located the female flower, remove a nearby male flower. This is where a bit of foreplay may come in handy. In sight of the female flower carefully peel off the petals of the male flower, leaving only the stamen (the sticking out part) exposed which is covered in yellow pollen. With your fingers gently open the female flower and take the exposed stamen and slowly and gently rub it all over the pistil of the female flower.  If you have enough male flowers, then to be extra sure of success, remove a second male flower and repeat the process. Now sit back an enjoy a smoke.  Try to remember where are the female flowers you have pollinated are located so you can check back the next morning.  If the flower is still open (which if you did you job properly the frist time it usually isn't), you can pollinate again.  Your time frame on this is narrow.  Both the male and female flowers will remain open and ready for only a certain period of time (as usual frist thing in the morning for the male flower) and then it will close (female) or die off (male).  So, you need to be checking each morning to see who is there and when it might be opening and hopefully they are both open & ready at the same time.

Another blogger explains their take on cucurbits flowers as follows:

Examples of monoecious plants are melons, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. These are cucurbits which produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. When we eat these vegetables, we are eating an enlarged ovary.

Hummm?!?  I don't think I will be able to look or eat a watermelon again without thinking that I am chomping down on a very large ovary - oh yummy!!!

Here is a video on how to hand pollinate a cucurbit plant from a Dr. Ruth look alike:

I should point out a couple of other related things not mentioned yet. 
  • If you do not have bees buzzing your garden maybe it's because you are discouraging them or you do not have anything to attract them.  Huh?  Say what?  The discouragement may be coming from using pesticides to get rid of the bugs you do not want in your garden.  Bees are insects as well so it will kill or deter them as well.  We vegetable gardener are sometimes guilty of just planting vegetables and not flowers.  Yeah, I know you can't eat flowers but bees are attracted to the color of the flowers as well as the pollen.  So, if you plant some flowers along with your vegetables you might get some bees.  As well some flower plants help keep away other harmful insects.  I blog about this some time back here
  • Another point is that do not let your vegetable plants start flowering too soon.  I know it is exciting to see the first flowers appear but give the plant a chance to grow to a proper size.  I just clip all the flowers off my eggplant the other day as the plants are too small to support the fruit.  They are only a foot tall at the moment, so I will let them get about two feet tall before I let the flowers stay.  I will be doing the same with my tamaters and peppers later.  The healthier and stronger your plant is the more flowers it will make and thus more fruit - trust me on this.  I had more chili peppers last year on four plants then I knew what to do with.

Just in case you did not check out the earlier links to the bees - here is a video to make you go hummmm and hopefully you'll go back and check out the links.

Hope this posting was helpful for some of you.  As always you can share your experiences with pollinating in the comment box or leave a comment about something else.

If anybody knows where I can get some help in starting a bee hive here in Dubai I would very much appreicate to here from you in the comment box - maybe others are interested as well.

Oh, one more thing about this hand pollination thing - make sure your hands are clean, sterile and warm - nobody, not even plants, like to have their reproduction bits handled with dirty cold hands!!!

Thanks for stopping by!


1 comment:

  1. hilaaaaaarious. love it!!!
    and so interesting!!
    starting a BALCONY GARDENERS CLUB in Dubai.
    Just to get these ladies PLANTING....
    And would you mind joining our SLOW FOOD/TERRA MADRE group??
    Laura Allais-Maré