Copyright 1997 by Janice D. Green
Did you ever eat (or throw away) a watermelon that tasted more like the
rind than the sweet watermelon you were expecting? If so, your watermelon did not
get pollinated well enough when it was only a blossom.
How does a blossom get pollinated? The answer is bees. Bees gather pollen and nectar
that they find in the blossoms. If bees don't go into the blossoms to forage for food, the
blossoms won't make seeds. Many tiny yellow grains of pollen must land all over the sticky
pistil of each flower to make the seeds grow inside the watermelon.
You might think seeds inside a watermelon aren't important. Maybe you
think they get in your way when you eat a piece of melon. But if you want a tasty melon,
you want pollinated seeds inside. As the seeds develop inside the watermelon, hormones in
the seed go to work to cause the melon to ripen and sweeten. Without the pollinated seeds
there are no hormones. The farmer can do everything else exactly right. He can plant the
right kind of seeds on the right day. He can use the right kind of fertilizer. He can keep
the weeds out perfectly. But no matter how well the farmer cares for his crop, he will not
get good melons without a lot of bees. If no seeds get pollinated, the watermelon falls
off the plant when it is about the size of a marble or Ping- pong ball. If only a few
seeds get pollinated, it will make a small, lopsided, sorry tasting watermelon (right). It
takes many bee visits in the blossom to make a really ripe, sweet melon (left).
Our bees are being threatened by many things that weren't a problem twenty
and thirty years ago. They are dying off so fast that it is frightening. Melons aren't the
only food that depends on bees. Our food supply is in danger because our bees are in
One third of the food we eat is dependent on pollinators. We couldn't grow these foods
if we didn't have bees or other insects to pollinate these crops.
Watermelons are only one of many foods that require pollination. Watermelons,
cantaloupes, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apples, cherries,
oranges, peaches, and kiwifruit are other examples of fruits that are dependent on bees to
produce fruit. Without bees these fruits would not grow. With only a few bees they can
grow but will not make good fruit.
Vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, and some varieties of peas and beans must also have bees to have a yield. The cucumbers on the left are well pollinated and will taste and keep well. The ones on the right will spoil easily and will produce gas in the digestive system.
Almonds require more bees than any other crop in the United States. Okra,
tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, will produce vegetables without bees, but to get the best
quality vegetables, they still need bees.
Some crops will produce a good harvest without bees, but the bees are necessary to get
seeds. Cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, collards, mustard, all require bees for
Clover and alfalfa pastures and forage legumes must have bees if they are to make their
own seeds. Otherwise the farmer must buy expensive seed to replant the pasture.
A few crops such as grasses and grains need only wind to pollinate them. Corn is an
excellent example of this. The pollen grows on the tassels that stick out the top of a
corn plant. One grain of pollen needs to land on the end of each fiber of corn silk to
make a good ear of corn. Sometimes farmers who have large fields of corn will hire a
helicopter to fly around over their fields just to make "wind" so the pollen
will be blown around and stick to the corn silks.
Our beef is indirectly dependent upon pollination. Clover and alfalfa are very rich in
protein and make up about 1/3 of the diet of cows. Cows also eat grasses and grains, but
these don't have as much protein. So cows need the clover, alfalfa, and legumes which need
the bees. Bees, then, are a very important part in our supply of beef, milk, cheese, and
other milk products.
Because so many of our foods depend on the bees to pollinate them, we need to be aware
of what is happening to them. And we must learn what we can do to help protect them.
OTHER WEB SITES ABOUT POLLINATION
The Pollination Home Page by Dave Green
Pollination in greater depth
SWARM A fun bee game