Pollinating Tomatoes: the “Good Vibrations” Buzz

pollinating tomatoes
pollinating tomatoes

Today is Father’s Day, and to Dads everywhere, I wish you a happy one.

But tomorrow, we’ll begin an international week of celebrating all the creatures whose job it is to make sure plants, like people, continue their lines.

This post is dedicated to the pollinators – especially the ones I’ve depended on for pollinating tomatoes.

Organized by the global Pollinator Partnership, International Pollinator Week’s purpose is best summed up in their logo and motto:

Pollinating Tomatoes - pollinator.org

Protect their lives. Preserve ours.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a dismaying decline in the number of pollinators – especially bees and Monarch butterflies – visiting my garden.

And that’s despite my having planted all sorts of their favorite perennials – scented geraniums, salvia, hyssop, and butterfly milkweed, to name a few.

But this is the first year that I’m worried there won’t be enough bees to do their usually stellar job of pollinating tomatoes.

Nothing sings “Smmertime” more sweetly to me than vine-ripened tomatoes fragrant and warm from the sun. As of this morning, only two of my tomato plant’s nearly 30 blossoms were forming fruit.

Most of today’s hybrid tomato cultivars self-pollinate when the wind shakes their pollen loose. However, our recent weather has been scorchingly hot, humid, and dry, with scarcely a breath of wind for relief.

So today, I decided it was time to (literally) take matters into my own hands!

Pollinating Tomatoes by Hand: Taking My Cue from the Bees

Have you ever really studied a tomato flower?

Pollinating Tomatoes - Closeup of tomato flower.
Closeup of tomato flower.

The prominent reproductive “cone” protruding from its backward-curving petals consists of five tightly sealed stamens. The stamens’ tips, called anthers,  produce pollen  – which they only release when the flowers “vibrate.”

To pollinate the flower, the pollen has to reach the female pistils in the cone’s interior. The tomato flower’s designed to attract only strong-winged bumblebees, carpenter bees, and mud bees. Why?

Because according to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) site, they’re “buzz pollinators”:

Buzz pollinators can vibrate their bodies to shake pollen from the enclosed anthers of tomatoes…bee pollinators of tomatoes include carpenter bees (Xylocopa spp.) and bumblebees (Bombus spp.).

Buzz pollination, reports the University of Stirling’s Vallejo-MarinLab,  produces vibrations powerful enough to make the pollen “bounce inside the anthers” and eventually force it outside, where it settles on the bees’ bodies.

The humming these bees make is actually the sound of their thoracic muscles vibrating. Honeybees can’t buzz, and tomato flowers don’t produce nectar. So you’ll never see a honeybee pollinating tomatoes.

But my hand pollination will succeed if I duplicate the bees’ vibrating buzz.

While my thoracic muscles aren’t built for the task, the perfect alternative is the battery-operated toothbrush sitting on my bathroom counter!

The How-To of Toothbrush-Pollinating Tomatoes

This method of pollinating tomatoes also works for any of its relatives, such as:

  • peppers
  • eggplant
  • tomatillos

and white or red potatoes.

They usually shed their pollen during the morning and early afternoon, with peak production around noon. The best weather for hand pollinating tomatoes is sunny and warm, not too humid, and no rain in the forecast.

Hold a cluster of tomato blossoms in one hand and the toothbrush just behind it in your other. Let the brush vibrate for three or four seconds to loosen the pollen.

Then turn the brush off and blow on the flower slightly to disperse the pollen so it reaches the pistils. Repeat for all your flower clusters.

If it works, the pollinated ones will wilt in a few days as your baby tomatoes begin to grow!

Unless I see the bees returning to do the job as Mother Nature intended, I’ll be hand-pollinating tomatoes every two or three days as long as the new flowers keep coming.

But for the many reasons we need an International Pollinator Week, I certainly hope I don’t have to!

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