It’s no secret that the world is suffering from a lack of pollinators. One out of every three bites of food we eat is provided through the work of animal and insect pollinators and our food supply is at risk if pollinators continue to disappear at the rate they have been.
Here are some ways we can help protect pollinators in the long run and circumvent the problem in the short run.
Planting a variety of native plants in your yard will support pollinators throughout their entire lifecycle much more effectively than will introduced plants. As a reminder, native plants are those that were here prior to European settlement.
A little planning and attention to bloom season will provide your yard with beauty and food for insects from early spring to late fall. Plant a diversity of plants to provide food for different pollinators. Vary colors, fragrances and heights to attract different pollinator species. If you must use pesticides – which are extremely toxic to pollinators – use great caution, use as little as possible, and make sure you are using the proper pesticide for the problem you have. A good place to learn about native plants is www.foxvalleyarea.wildones.org.
But what about the plants in this year’s vegetable garden that need pollinating? Planting a full range of native plants will set you up for years to come, but if your pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, and squash are lacking pollinators, they need help now. How can you tell? If there are plenty of blooms on the plants, but no vegetables are forming or if they are shriveling and dying instead of growing and ripening, then pollinators aren’t visiting the plants.
You can assist by hand pollinating. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are the easiest to help out. Since they have both male and female parts on the same blossom, all they need is a gentle shake for pollination to occur. Gently jiggle a sturdy part of the stems every few days. Choose a time of day when it’s not too humid. Mid-day is best.
Hand pollinating melons, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins and squash takes a little more finesse but isn’t difficult. First, you have to determine which flowers are male – the pollen producers, and which are female – the pollen recipients. Male flowers have straight stems, while female flowers will have a slight swelling below the blossom that resembles the vegetable it hopes to become.
Use a cotton swab, small soft paintbrush, or even your finger to gently brush against the pollen covered anthers inside a male flower. Then brush the pollen onto the sticky center of the female flower. That’s it!
You’ll need to do this in the morning or afternoon because the blossoms of some of these plants close by evening. Try hand pollinating every few days until you see vegetables beginning to form. If you don’t have success after a week or so, there may be another problem, such as lack of light or extreme temperatures.