The Great Pumpkin Miracle
Last year at Halloween I bought a bunch of pumpkins to make jack-o’-lanterns, pies and pumpkin bread. They were really cheap for whatever reason and so we had our own private pumpkin festival. When the carved pumpkins started to decay I threw them into the compost bin. Some seeds must have made it there too because around Christmas time I started to see baby pumpkin plants growing. When they miraculously survived the winter (how?) I transplanted them to various locations. I don’t really expect them to bear fruit because I can’t imagine they will get enough sunlight but they are welcome to try. One has started producing blossoms. Since its presence alone is a bit of a miracle …
The other day I was looking at the flowers to see if a female blossom had developed yet. I remembered reading somewhere that squash plants sometimes require hand pollination. The blossoms were already closed tight for the day and it was clear that none were female but on a whim I opened one up. Surprise! There was a little bee inside. It buzzed as it flew out. I thought maybe it had been trapped inside.
It flew away so quickly I didn’t see any detail but it looked about the same size as a honey bee. Only native bees have the muscles to buzz. Could it have been a squash bee? That buzz made me wonder though. Though I looked all over I could not find any source confirming squash bees buzz.
If anyone reading this knows for sure I hope you will let me know. (EDIT: June 5, 2014 Found some sources today confirming squash bees can make a buzzing sound.)
Squash bees co-evolved with the cuburbitaceae plant family. Cucurbits include squash, zucchini, gourds, pumpkins, cucumber, watermelons and cantaloupe. There are two very similar bees that are called squash bees: Peponapis and Xenoglossa. They take flight June, July and August.
Females begin foraging before the sun even rises; the males actually sleep in the blossoms at night. Being wrapped up in flower petals really seems like the perfect way to sleep to me. As you can imagine when those boys wake up in the morning they are covered in pollen. This habit of being active early in the morning makes these bees ideally beneficial for plants whose blossoms close when the air starts to heat up. By the time honey bees are out and about a lot of squash flowers have locked up the shop. So, if it was a squash bee I heard buzzing past me it wasn’t a joyous buzz of release — it was the grumble of someone woken up much too early and forced to find a new place to sleep. =/ Oops. Sorry.
Cucurbits rely on squash bees not just for their early visits but also their pollen capacity. A female watermelon flower, for example, needs 500 to 1000 pollen grains to produce fruit — a quantity that would require multiple visits from many honey bees. Male squash bees can do the job much more efficiently. That efficiency is important because the female flower only opens once.
How to Create a B & B for the Squash Bee
Gardeners in North America having to resort to hand pollination can encourage the presence of squash bees. The females build tunnels with small mounds at the entrance in moist but well drained soil. They lay eggs that take about a year to develop inside those tunnels. Leave the soil undisturbed and the bees will stay for years to come. Besides routinely planting squash, gourds, pumpkins, watermelon or cantaloupe you can also add alfalfa, basketflower (Centaurea americana), chicory, pickerel weed, vinegar weed (Trichostema lanceolatum) or wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare). Squash bees have been reported on those plants though most sources I read said squash bees depend wholly on cucurbit flowers to survive.
What does it mean?
Surprises like these (impossible pumpkins and bees that sleep in flowers) are little gifts of hope from the universe. Life has a wonderful habit of bubbling out from the cauldron of primordial soup and waving like some kind of crazy tourist. The spontaneity and complexity of life on this little planet never fails to fill me with wonder.