Q: I’m a writer for a small newspaper in San Diego and in reading one of your books on month to month organic gardening in Southern California, I was interested by your idea on hand pollinating fruit tress due to lack of bee activity. I’m interested in writing on the subject of saving the bees and have read your recent posts on the problem and solutions.
Can you give us a good tip on how regular folks who are amateur gardeners or just want to maintain a nice lawn, can identify the good bees from the bad ones? I believe most people just find it easier to grab a can of wasp and hornet killer, not realizing the damage that does to the good bees.
Also, you mention that if you don’t see any bee activity in February, your tree may not bear fruit. For which types of trees is hand pollination most feasible, it’s seems like a daunting task. Any additional tips or comments are greatly appreciated.
A: Hand pollination takes much less time than you might imagine. After receiving this email, I did a sample test to see how long it takes me to pollinate citrus blossoms. It is possible on dwarf lemon or orange tree to stand next to the tree and pollinate as many as one hundred blossoms in five minutes. Using a small sable paint brush to go from blossom to blossom dabbing and swirling the brush into each one, a human being can go faster than bees. So if you were to spend 5 minutes a day for a week pollinating the blossoms on your dwarf citrus, (and also water and fertilize appropriately) you could expect 700 lemons or oranges a few months later. If a citrus tree were taller, you would need a three-legged orchard ladder, you could move it from place to place and maybe spend ten or fifteen minutes a day on the task, and might end up with thousands of fruit. (All folks with taller fruit trees need to have one of these three-legged ladders in order to prune and care for their fruit trees and harvest fruit safely. I have had one for many years and we use it frequently for garden tasks. Four-legged ladders are unsteady on uneven ground and can cause accidents.)
On page 126 of my book I describe methods for hand-pollinating cherimoya, which requires two steps since you must collect the pollen at night and spread it the next day. I explain carefully in the book why this is so and how to do the job. A tiny night-flying wasp or moth actually performs this service in wild places where cherimoya is native but not here. Gardeners who spend a few minutes pollinating ten or twenty cherimoya blossoms once a week year-round, as I describe in my book, will have an abundant harvest of these expensive fruits year round, not just in fall and not just a few fruits as happens otherwise. (These trees bear blossoms in waves of bloom year round.)
I also explain there how to hand pollinate quince and guava trees either by hand or with a long-handled duster. I demonstrated all these tasks many years ago on a television show I had in those days on Channel 39 (NBC) in San Diego. Some months later the owners of the guava tree got back to me in fall and said they had such an abundant harvest of delicious fruit that they were eating all they could and giving bags away. They had never had more than one or two fruits prior to that year. From now on they said they would always use a feather duster to pollinate as I had done and wanted to know where I got mine. I still have it today. It is a piece of Australian sheep’s fleece glued onto a long stick so as to make a light-weight cylinder of shaggy fleece that easily picks up the abundant pollen on guava and spreads it around like a cloud of dust. I stood on my three-legged ladder to do this job. I took it along with me in the back of my car as I often did in those days, driving around with that ladder sticking out the back with a red flag on it!
You also might notice the Anna apples on the front cover of my book. I hand pollinated the apple blossoms that later became those very fruits. There were few bees that winter and only a few blossoms on the Dorset apple tree I had planted for cross-pollination (‘Ein Schemer’ is a better tree to use as a pollinator for Anna), so instead of waiting for the bees I did the job myself. I only did it once that year and it only took a few minutes. When Anna apples are long and skinny and not plump as they should be, they have no seeds inside. This is a sign they have not been properly cross-pollinated with another apple variety.
Thank you so much for writing, for spreading the word about my book, and please don’t hesitate to ask more questions.
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