Fruitless: Unpollenated Gardens

Finally in the middle of July, our garden is visible above the ground, even from the road some 30 feet away. For the longest time, it seemed like an iceberg–7/8ths below the surface, invisible.

Now tomatoes near the tops of their wire cages, and the Delicata squash wrap their tendrils around the cattle-panel walls of the garden, climbing toward the highest wire as it they intend to stay.

Floppy yellow flowers open first from the base of the squash vines, and bring the first color other than green–soon to be joined, hopefully, by oranges, yellows and reds of several tomato varieties, should we escape late blight this year. It’s anybody’s guess.

The downside of all this profusion of growth is that so far, most of the squash plants are unfertilized. In the few flowers where pollinators have come and gone, the female bees have left the pollen-dust off their feet on the sticky female stigmas. (The males do more of the buzzing competing for the females, who do all the real work.)

Those visited flowers–like the one pictured–are “pregnant.” They swell at the base of the flower with a baby bump that will become the ultimate striped squash fruit we will gather in August. Other flowers, never visited, simply wither and die, beautiful but barren.

Years past, I have planted squash (the relatively insipid yellow crookneck) more to be able to hear the chorus of the bees than to eat. I learned not so many years ago that there is an insect specialist for this task–the squash bee–and we have had them in noisy profusion for a month or more in summers past.

This year there are, once again, no honeybees, and of great concern, not enough native squash bees to strike up a chorus of buzzes. This is an ominous sign to one gardener, and by extension, to all gardeners, and from there, to all who have the habit of eating.

Some would argue that our agricultural needs can be met without the non-native European honeybee as a pollinator. But we  cannot get by without ANY bees at all if the native bees are also lost. And this seems to be happening–at least here, in a place I would judge to be one of the more chemically unaltered spots in the eastern US.

The environmental service that native bees have offered for free may only be appreciated, sadly, after we come to realize we cannot do for ourselves what they have done for us.

Fragments From Floyd: All the Buzz

As Honey Bees Die Off, First Inventory of Wild Bees Is Under Way

Created By Storm: {Giving Back to your Garden: Mason Bee Keeping}





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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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