I have a vitex growing in my garden plot, and it’s just starting to bloom. This morning the clusters of tiny purple flowers were waving up and down with the shifting weights of bees and other visitors.
Nearby the yellow fennel and rue flowers were mobbed, and a Painted Lady was flirting with the Queen Anne’s Lace.
“Ah, a pollinator garden,” I announced to my buzzing, whirring companions. Without giving it too much thought, I had cultivated landing pads and tube-shaped flowers and the corresponding creatures had arrived. And the tomatoes were producing.
Last year my perfectly healthy plants grew lots of dark green leaves, a few blossoms, and about three tomatoes. At the preschool garden we grew six or so leafy tomato plants and harvested one little tomato. So what was going on? It wasn’t until late winter, when I had started to think about new plants, that it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen many bumble bees last summer at the community garden and none at the preschool garden. Bumble bees, it turns out, are the key to pollinating tomatoes. That hum of theirs vibrates the flowers, loosening the pollen which is hidden inside the flowers’ anthers instead of being more freely available in sticky clumps outside the anthers that pollinators can easily bump into. The pollen in this case is the bee treat (well, more than a treat: protein) since the flowers of tomatoes, eggplants, and blueberries, among others, don’t contain nectar.
Gardeners in the know have been sonicating their tomato plants with electric toothbrushes and other devices when bumble bees haven’t been available (if that sounds risqué just remember we are talking about pollination after all). I’ll try that when I face this problem again. But of course, I’d rather have a garden full of bumble bees. Last year’s lack of pollinators in my particular garden spaces could have been due to lots of location-specific disruptions, the biggest being the nonstop construction in Hell’s Kitchen. Still there’s no denying that pollinators of all kinds are under siege everywhere from the direct and indirect impacts of global warming/climate change. Scientific literature talks about bees maturing too early for the plants they pollinate and parasites getting the upper hand because of higher temperatures.
We got lucky this year. (Did it have to do with the very cold snowy winter here in the New York City area?) But last year was a warning that trickled down to the gardeners of the tiniest garden plots.