Do I Need Bees to Grow Vegetables?

The relationship between humans, bees, and plants is one that underpins a large part of our existence. Namely, we need bees to grow food. Bees co-evolved with plants in a relationship based on pollination.

Pollination is the process of plant reproduction, using the stamen (male reproductive tool) and the pistil (female reproductive tool). 

Bees traverse fields of flowers searching for nectar, digging their faces into plant matter and picking up flecks of pollen dust along the way. As they move, the pollen on their bodies falls off into corresponding flowers, allowing those flowering plants to reproduce. 

These pollinators underpin the survival of roughly 35% of flowering food crops. As you strive to build your garden, you may wonder:

  • Can you grow crops without bees?
  • Do bees help grow vegetables?
  • Do vegetables need bees to pollinate?
Bee hives in a garden in the sun under trees

What Plants Need Bees to Pollinate?

Bees are necessary for crops with “imperfect flowers.” These are flowering plants that have separated male and female flowers. 

There are more plants that bees pollinate, however. Among the essential crops that bees support are kiwifruit, pumpkin, gourd, macadamia nut, brazil nut, rowanberry, watermelon, and passionfruit. 

Bees have a “great,” or near-essential relevance to a long list of other plants. Among them are apple, mango, avocado, cherry, almond, apricot, blueberry, cucumber, cashew, turnip, peach, and pear crops. There are dozens of other essential crops that require bees in a “modest” way as well. 

The point is that bees are undeniably important to the well-being of many of our crops. The class of pollinators is even more important than bees, specifically. That said, the bee is an excellent pollinator and serves flowering plants very well.  

Wind Pollinated Vegetables

There are also a lot of wind-pollinated or “self-pollinated” plants. The seeds and pollen of these plants get swept up by the wind and carried long distances until they find a reproductive counterpart. 

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These plants typically expunge high amounts of pollen in hopes that one or two spores will land in the correct spot. Self-pollinating plants are excellent crops for those who don’t have access to bees or don’t want to include bees in their growing process. 

A lot of grains fall into this category. Corn, oats, barley, rye, wheat, and rice are all wind-pollinated plants. Corn is probably the most pivotal wind-pollinated plant in terms of human use. 

Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant are a couple of popular options that people like to grow. Note that there are a lot of other plants that don’t require pollination to reproduce or yield crops. 

Most, if not all leafy greens don’t require pollination. The same goes for broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, legumes, herbs, and onions.

Do Bees Help Grow Vegetables?

Fortunately for vegetable growers, most plants that need pollinators either don’t produce edible foods or produce fruits. 

Foods like cucumbers, berries, tree fruits, and most melons require pollinators. Many vegetables are leafy greens or root vegetables which don’t require pollination. 

That said, for the vegetables that require pollinators, bees are essential. These plants could not reproduce without pollinators, which is why it’s so scary that bees are seeing a population decline. 

What Vegetables Do Not Need Pollination?

The following vegetables are self-pollinating:

  • squashes
  • tomatoes
  • eggplants
  • peppers
  • kale
  • spinach
  • leafy greens
  • broccoli
  • kohlrabi
  • carrots
  • potatoes (sweet and normal)
  • horseradish
  • cucumbers
  • tree fruits
  • melons
  • corn
  • oats
  • barley
  • rye
  • wheat
  • rice 

If you’re curious about a particular vegetable, do some research on the way it’s grown. If you can’t find good resources, check to see how that plant reproduces. If the plant has “imperfect flowers” or requires pollinators to reproduce, it doesn’t fall into this category. 

Note that you can still produce small crops or gardens without pollinators, even if these plants require pollinators to reproduce. Hand-pollination is something that is possible with a little research and attention to detail. 

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You would not want to use hand-pollination for a massive crop, but you could manage it with a few plants in your garden. 

Can You Increase The Bee Population Near Your Crop?

You can certainly invest in a few things that will increase your bee population. 

The first thing you can do is attract bees the hard way. That involves creating a welcoming environment for bees in your yard, your garden, or wherever you’re trying to grow plants. 

Plant The Right Flowers

Start by growing lots of flowering plants or planting pre-existing plants that bees are attracted to. They’re attracted to yellow, blue, purple, and white flowers. It’s also worth noting that plants with single flowers (rather than rings of flowers) produce more pollen and draw more bees.

Some great bee-attracting plants are borage, aster, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, marigold, salvia, zinnia, coneflower, cranesbill, rudbeckia hirta, lavender, California lilac, and more. 

Build a Bee Box

You can also consider buying a “bee box” or building one. This is a box that serves as a perfect home for bees to build their hives in. If you can create a suitable home for the bees, they’re much more likely to remember your land and come back to it or stay there permanently. 

It’s also worth noting that some bees are solitary creatures. They don’t all serve a queen and operate in colonies. Instead, many of these little pollinators live in old clusters of brush, sticks, and deadwood. 

Encourage bees by creating piles of this natural refuse and leaving them around your garden. 

Provide Drinking Water

Bees get thirsty expending all that energy throughout the day. Compared to their body sizes, they’re flying vast distances searching for nectar!

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They look for shallow pools of water to drink from. A small birdbath or small plates filled with water are the perfect drinking fountains for bees. Water that gets too deep is harder for the insects to drink from because they have a tendency to get stuck in deep water. 

Avoid Pesticides

Pollinators do not take kindly to pesticides. In fact, pesticides often kill pollinators because they’re close cousins to the “pests” that these chemicals intend to kill. 

Mass use of pesticides in large crops is part of the reason that pollinators like bees are dying out. You can find natural pest-control products that don’t use pesticides and are safe for bees. Note that there are also plants that deter other pests while failing to bother bees. 

A few of these are basil, chives, chrysanthemums, dill, garlic, lemongrass, and mint. 

Plant a Variety of Flowers 

Another aspect of bee depopulation is the presence of mono-crops. Crops of one plant that stretch vast distances give bees only one food source. 

As a result, their immune systems fail to grow strong and they don’t get all of the nutrients they need. If you produce a garden that hosts numerous plants for bees to engage with the bees around your property will be healthy. 

That means they’ll reproduce and stick around for years to come.

Invest in Bees

When all else fails, you can invest in bee starter kits that come with bees to start colonies. In many cases, these include a queen and a few worker bees. You will need additional infrastructure to produce a healthy home for the bees. 

You might also be able to invest in existing colonies of bees, but that requires specific apiarist knowledge and a little extra time for colony management.