MARCH 2003
Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas



Pollinating Squash

By Dr. Sam Cotner, Extension Horticulturist, Retired
Texas A&M University

hen growing squash in your garden, dark green, vigorously growing plants and lots of pretty, yellow flowers are good signs, but certainly not sure-fire reasons to lick your chops or get out the cookbook. Actually, those healthy-looking plants and showy flowers may be signaling a time for you to literally get “as busy as a bee.”

Squash, like all members of the cucumber (Cucurbit) family, have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Consequently, for fruit set to occur, pollen must be transferred from the male to the female flower(s). This process is termed - pollination - a function normally carried out by insects, most often honeybees. Without pollination, those bright yellow flowers will never turn into anything for the dinner table, unless you are into eating fried squash blossoms (which are supposed to be good - but then some folks will eat just about anything)!

The primary reason the numerous yellow flowers may yield little, if any, squash is an absence of honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination. This is especially true in urban/suburban areas where fortunately (for both us and them), honeybees seldom choose to build their hives.

An absence of honeybees is a real problem, but one that can easily be overcome - if you are willing to take their place! You can play “bee” by transferring the pollen yourself - from the male to the female flowers. It’s simple, easy and almost always guaranteed to result in plenty of garden-fresh squash for your dinner table.

Before we get into the art of “playing bee,” you obviously need to be able to tell the difference between the male and female flowers. The female squash flowers are those that have a very distinct swelling or enlargement directly behind the petals which is actually the small, immature squash fruit. The male flowers lack the immature fruit and are simply attached to the plant by a long, slender stem - or peduncle if you’re a botanist.

Playing bee can be accomplished in several different ways.

You can use a cotton swab or a small paint brush to transfer the pollen from the male to the female flower(s). Simply dab either the swab or brush into the center of a fully open male flower, making sure some of the yellow pollen grains adhere to the cotton or bristles. Then, transfer the pollen by dabbing the swab or brush into the center of an open female flower. In most cases there is enough pollen in one male flower to pollinate three to five female flowers.

A less sophisticated, but just as effective, method when playing “bee” is to simply pull off an open male flower, remove or peel back the flower petals and then dab its pollen-laden center into the center of an open female flower. Make sure the center of the male flower (anther) makes good contact with the center (stigma) of the female flower. Since this is a much less pollen-efficient technique, use one male flower to pollinate no more than three female flowers.

Justa few more important considerations regarding squash and pollination are:

First of all, both male and female squash flowers are open one day and one day only - they open during early morning and generally close by mid afternoon.

Pollination, either by bee or you, is best accomplished by mid-morning.

The time from pollination to harvest is much shorter than most folks realize. Nearly all types of summer squash (zucchini, crookneck, etc.) Will be ready for your dinner table about 3 to 5 days after pollination. Winter squash (acorn, butternut, etc.) Take considerably longer.

If you find reason to treat your squash with pesticides to control diseases or insects, do so during late afternoon. Spraying or dusting at his time will greatly reduce the chance of harming pollinating honey bees.

This spring don’t let an absence of honeybees, for whatever reason, keep you from enjoying the great taste of home-grown, garden-fresh squash. Arm yourself with a cotton swab, small brush or a male flower - and pollinate away!

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