Bees make fruits and veggies possible. These edible plants need the bees to flourish and the bees need the pollen and nectar to keep their hives running smoothly. It’s common to see lists of flowers bees love, but since we are in the midst of vegetable planting season (whether you started indoors or are planning to dig in the dirt in your yard in the next few weeks), let’s spend some time learning about edible plants and their relationships to bees.
The first thing to understand is that there are different types of pollination and if you know the type of pollination a plant needs, you can guess whether bees are involved (or are not involved). Moreover, we eat different parts of plants including stems, leaves, roots, and fruit, so whether we need bees to enjoy our favorite edible plants depends on what part of the plant we eat.
In general, many plants that do not require bees (or other pollinators) to pollinate are wind-pollinated. Wind pollination occurs when pollen is carried through the air from plant to plant. Many grains are pollinated this way. Think corn, oats, rice, and barley.
Self-fertilization is another type of pollination. A great example of this is tomatoes. During this process, a plant drops its pollen from the stamen to the ovary within the same flower or nearby flowers on the plant. No bees necessary here. However, tomato plants have higher yields if you let bees provide a helping hand. When bees land on flowers for these plants, their movements can help shake more pollen loose.
There is some nuance here as there are many plants that don’t technically require pollination to grow the parts we eat but do require the efforts of bees to create seeds. Classic examples are leafy greens and root vegetables. When we eat leafy greens we are eating the leaves of the plant and when we eat root vegetables, we are eating the root; pollination is a process to help edible plants produce their fruit and seeds.
So, you don’t need the help of bees to enjoy a fresh salad from your garden, but if you wanted to harvest seeds for planting next year, you would.
For example, it takes carrots two years to produce flowers and these flowers require pollination to produce seeds. For this particular root vegetable, the male and female portions of each flower mature at different times and this is why the carrot is unable to self-pollinate.
However, you do need the services of bees to enjoy many common fruits. This is often because the male and female parts of the plant exist on different flowers, so self-fertilization is not possible. Many of our tastiest garden vegetables (technically fruits) qualify under this umbrella — squash, cucumbers, and melons, for example.
A wide variety of traditional fruits require the efforts of bees. Berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries all require our fuzzy yellow and black friends to flourish.
Let’s back up for a minute. Many berries are considered self-fruitful, meaning they can produce their own fruit without pollinators, however, the consistency of the pollen (as with blueberries), requires a bees’ industrious spirit to transfer. Similar to the tomato, blueberry production is more robust with the help of bees.
Additionally, many trees need the help of bees to produce fruit. Consider stone fruits like peaches, apricots, or cherries. All require bees for pollination.
Let’s go a little deeper and explore why some crops need bees.
Many of the plants that require bee pollination have male and female flowers. Male flowers have five anthers, the part of the stamen that contains pollen, and are typically more abundant than female flowers. These anthers are fused together to form a single column.
Female flowers, on the other hand, contain a visible ovary located at the base of the flower. There is also a three-lobed stigma, which serves as a receptacle for pollen.
Bees can get nectar from both male and female flowers, however, the female flowers contain more nectar and the male flowers contain sweeter nectar. We know bees like it sweet!
Regardless of their differences, female and male flowers will wither and drop after only a day, especially if the females do not receive sufficient pollination. They need the activities of bees to survive.
Bees, when engaging in expert pollination, travel to the flowers earlier in the morning when there is the greatest access to the pollen and nectar; flowers tend to open early in the morning and close in the afternoon.
When we look at this process with vegetables, such as squash or cucumbers, a large amount of pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers in order to produce fruit. Additionally, cross-pollination will yield larger fruits.
Bees work hard for the nectar and pollen they desire, climbing deep into each flower to harvest from the nectaries. They collect pollen in their pollen baskets, and by visiting the flowers of vegetables, they can impact the survival and yields of the vegetables and fruit we know and love.
If we want to enjoy the process of growing fruits and vegetables plus have lots to harvest throughout the season, we have to facilitate a relationship with bees.
Basically, in order to optimize your enjoyment of your vegetable and fruit garden, you need to get bees involved. You can cross your fingers and hope they show up, which isn’t necessarily smart if you live in a city and away from any large expanses of forage, or you can take actionable steps to bring the bees to you.
Let’s talk about that.
Bees do best when they have a variety of high-quality forage to get nectar and pollen from. Think about if you had to choose between a piece of dry toast on a plate or a table full of all of your favorite dishes. I can guess what you would choose.
Bees are relatable that way. If you can create a mini-ecosystem in your yard, using vegetables and fruits bees like to visit as well as other robust sources of forage, you will see your garden thrive.
If you want the bees to come to your yard (and stay!) plant flowers next to and in your garden. Consider lining your garden plots with strips of wildflowers so the bees don’t have to go far.
Plant a variety of annuals and perennials to attract bees and other pollinators. Whenever possible, plant each variety of flower in clusters of up to 3’ x 3’. Bees are more likely to come to a patch of tasty looking flowers than a lone flower in a sea of many blooms.
Here are some examples of annuals to tempt the bees:
Yes, leave the clover and dandelions alone. Or at least pull any overgrowth and leave the rest for the bees.
Perennials are great because you can plant them and watch them continue to come back every single year. One and done! Once the initial planting is done, you just need to do some basic maintenance every year and watch them continue to feed the bees year after year.
Here are some examples:
In fact, a lot of flowers work great within your garden plot and are companion plants for your favorite vegetables. One example is calendula, a common flower used in herbal remedies and teas. Calendula can grow well next to carrots, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spring salad vegetables.
Another option is alyssum, a flower known for attracting bees and other insects. You can plant this flower next to peas, lettuce, or spinach.
The next time you see your favorite edible plants start to flower, instead of pinching off the tops, leave them be.
In fact, allowing brassicas like kale or broccoli to flower can provide your bees with an additional source of forage in the garden. You can still pick the leaves or other desirable parts of the plant for your own use.
Although honey bees live in hives, there are many vegetable and fruit-pollinating bees that live solitary lives. To encourage a diverse ecosystem in your yard, it’s best to leave some areas unmulched.
The sandy, exposed soil is ideal for bees to burrow into, creating their nesting habitat.
Additionally, try to leave fallen logs or tree branches in place to serve as nesting habitat as well. You can help support pollinators by creating their preferred habitat in your yard. Want to take it a step further?
You can drill bee-sized holes in wood – approximately 5/16” wide and 3 ½” deep – for mason bees to use as a home. Mason bees are some of the most efficient pollinators of fruit orchards. Make sure the wood is untreated, though. Bees are sensitive to pesticides and chemicals, so whenever possible leave them out of your gardening.
Fortunately, planting for the bees is relatively low-risk and high-reward. Your garden doesn’t have to be perfectly manicured or meticulously planned. The big question to ask yourself is whether you’ve provided nearby forage for the bees and planted a variety of bee-friendly vegetables and fruits.
Plant zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins, raspberries, onions, eggplant, hot peppers, and more. Experiment with different combinations and watch how much your garden thrives when you welcome bees into your yard.
So, there you have it. A crash course in the edible plants bees love. But, what are your next steps? In the coming weeks, take some time to plant a few seeds for the bees. Even if your city is under stay-at-home orders, many garden shops are doing call-ahead curbside pickup. You can also order seed packets online.
Plus, you have free access to your yard. If you live in an apartment or don’t have the largest space, no big deal. You can find window boxes or porch-ready pots and plant things like tomatoes or herbs. In uncertain times, it can be a salve for the soul to do what you actually have control over and you can provide tempting flowers for your neighborhood bees.