Sunday, September 9, 2007

Acorn Squash Sex Therapist

I took bees for granted. They were always a few bees in my garden working the blossoms, as I planted, pruned, plucked and picked. I kept a prudent distance, and I never got stung.

This year I planted six acorn squash. I'd never planted this kind of squash before, but I was already counting on a big crop like zucchini.

The male blooms came first, and a few days later the first female blossoms started appearing. I expected young squash to follow, but the tiny nascent squash on the female flowers shriveled. This went on for a few weeks. Why wasn't I getting any squash? What was I doing wrong? Not enough fertilizer? Not enough water? Too much water? Bad soil? What?

A gardening website solved the mystery. Bees are needed to move the pollen from the male to the female flowers. I knew I didn't have many bees, although I hadn't really paid attention. I started a count: So far this year, I've only counted one bumblebee and two smaller bees. (See photo of bee on a basil blossom.) The bee population has crashed throughout the country, and not just honeybees, but the native bees and bumblebees. A number of factors are blamed, including a virus. This could have serious consequences for our food supply. One out of every three bites you eat is traced to pollinator activity.

The gardening website suggested I do the work myself with a paintbrush. Soon, every morning I was searching for males to mate with females. Each blossom of both sexes is only open for a few hours in the morning before closing up shop forever, so you must be diligent, persistent and punctual.

I'd poke through the leaves, looking for partners. Some mornings, only males were open, sometimes only females showed up for the dance. Once, I found a blossom with both male and female parts. Sadly, it didn't produce a squash. It might have started a whole new species. Usually, I'd find at least one blossoming male, but not all males seemed to have pollen. Some mornings, male flowers were already spent by the females woke up. After a week of this, small squash began to form, and I was excited. I faithfully transferred the golden dust every day throughout the summer. Still, my matchmaking didn't turn out to be as fruitful as I expected. Only about ten percent of the females I pollinated produced fruit. Who knows why? I'd be happy to leave the work to the bees. Next year, I'm going to do everything I can to make life comfortable to keep the few bees I have.

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