No Bees, No Fruit!

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Growing your own fruit trees and small fruits is an exercise fraught with unexpected complications and one of the most common is the lack of bees to ensure adequate pollination. Often, your trees and shrubs bloom well enough and have nearby sources of compatible pollen (different clones of the same species to ensure good cross-fertilization), but if there aren’t enough bees to move the pollen around, the harvest won’t likely be up to your expectations.

Already, honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not present in top numbers in spring, because they have just woken up after a long winter of lethargy and the queen has not yet produced the full roster of new workers for the current season. Also, if the spring is unusually cold or rainy, honeybees don’t wander far from the hive. And in suburbs or cities, honeybees may be too scarce to be effective pollinators. Add to that the fact that there are fewer and fewer beekeepers and therefore fewer and fewer honeybees and you have a problem.

A typical bee hotel. Photo: http://www.plant-theatre.co.uk

Native bees, on the other hand, are more effective than honey bees in difficult situations, visiting flowers earlier in the season and not being put off by cool, rainy weather. They are also active earlier in the morning. You can encourage native bees by leaving small “wild patches” of scrub in a few places: native shrubs and perennials mingling naturally with little human interference. And, as much as possible, just let nature take its course in your flower beds, leaving dead leaves and stems to decompose on their own. Many bee species overwinter in leaf litter or in the soil just underneath and will therefore be present and ready to pollinate when next spring comes. You can also set up a “bee hotel” full of variously sized tubes for solitary bees. Place it where it receives morning sun but afternoon shade so the “rooms” warm up early yet don’t overheat and you’ll see more bees settle in.

Grape hyacinths often attract a lot of bees just at the right time to pollinate trees nearby. Photo: gardenwalkgardentalk.com

To attract bees of all kinds to your fruit trees, plant more of them: a mini-orchard, perhaps. That way, the concentration of flowers may be “worth the trip” for the little buzzers. And plant nearby beds of showy flowers that bloom just before your fruit trees do so they’ll already be on hand to start pollinating. In my own climate, spring bulbs are ideal for this purpose, especially grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.). 

And it goes without saying that, if you treat your fruit trees with insecticides, you should stop during flowering.

Beehives placed near apple trees in bloom. Photo: http://www.canr.msu.edu

Finally, if you live in the countryside, perhaps you could rent a hive or two for the time of flowering. That would enormously increase your chances of a bountiful harvest.

“Bee” true to your bees and they’ll “bee” there to pollinate!