If I told you that you could add one simple thing to your garden, and you would grow twice as much food, would you add it? I'm not talking about changing what varieties you grow, or going vertical, or hydroponics. This isn't a recipe for making fertilizer out of kitchen scraps, or using recycled bottles to make automatic watering devices. Those things are all great! Every garden needs a good design, quality seeds and plants, water, and compost. But you can have all of that, and you will still not get the kind of results that I am talking about. What is missing? Pollination!
Without pollination, plants that flower before they produce their fruit (or vegetable), will never produce. Have you ever seen a tomato plant covered in yellow flowers, but then watch in dismay as most of them wither and fall off, with no tomato to be seen? That is from a lack of pollination. Sure, some plants can self-pollinate (peas and orchids primarily). But what about tomatoes? Well, they are self-fertile, but the don't truly self-pollinate. They require what is known as buzz pollination. Now, I'm not suggesting you should run out and invest in a colony of honey bees. I said this was a simple addition, and honey bees are anything but simple. Don't get me wrong, I love the honey bee, and I think they are some of the most amazing insects that were created. But the fact of the matter is that honey bees can't pollinate a tomato. They don't know how! So what is the solution? How do you buzz pollinate your tomatoes?
The answer is solitary bees. In the case of tomatoes, I'm talking about leafcutter bees. These native, non-stinging bees are masters of buzz pollination! When you use the right pollinator for the job, you get 2.4 times as much food from your crops. That's more than double the tomatoes, without any real effort on your part. You don't need to use makeup brushes to try to hand-pollinate. You don't need to shake your flowers. You just need to provide the bees an appropriate home, and they will do the rest. The house should have nesting materials that are the right size for the type of bees that you want. Many summer bees, including leafcutters, use 6mm tubes. Spring bees, such as the blue orchard mason bee, use 8mm tubes. Stacking wood trays are another option, but again, the hole size matters. (Please don't drill holes into a solid wood block. Click here for an explanation of why this is discouraged.) You can try to draw in bees from the area, but you will have the most success if you start out with purchased bees the first year. After that, your bee numbers will increase from year to year when you properly care for the over-wintering cocoons.
These native bees do more than just pollinate tomatoes. You may be surprised at how many plants require buzz pollination! The list includes:
Best of all, these bees are gentle. They virtually never sting. In all my years of raising native bees, letting them hatch in my hands or handling the live bees, I have never once been stung. And even if they did, they do not have the same kind of sting as a honey bee or wasp, rather it is akin to a mosquito bite. You can feel safe keeping these bees around curious children, and they can be located right along your property line without causing issues with your neighbors.
As solitary bees, they do not form a colony or require a hive. Each bee will use it's own nesting hole, they do not share the tubes even though they may be located right next to each other. These bees don't produce honey, and they don't swarm. All in all, they are easy to keep, require minimal investments of time or money, and they can make a huge impact in your garden.
For further reading on this subject, check out these links: