With bees now such a wonderful part of our lives, I hope that in my garden and all of my future gardens, this will never be an issue, but occasionally there is a real need for pollination without a pollinator.
My dad called me the other day with a plant question (I do love being the family expert in this sort of thing). His four tomato plants were blooming like crazy, but the blooms were dropping off without making any fruit. After a nice chat on the phone I was able to get the details and leave him with a plan of action.
Three potential problems
1) Nutrients-- tomatoes need a well balanced soil diet to be able to fruit well. Dad's were planted in Miracle Grow Veggie mix, so this was probably not his issue. Proper nutrients can be achieved organically, but it is a lot trickier than just using the bagged mix.
2) Pests-- his plants did not appear bug damaged and Dad's ravenous local deer have not been bold enough to climb onto the deck to eat... yet.
3) Pollination-- This is the most likely cause. To form a fruit, the male pollen must be moved into the female parts of the flower. Normally, pollination is carried out by insects like our beloved honey bee and many others; however, sometimes this does not happen effectively and fruit will not form.
This is not a tomato, but you can see the small fruit forming at the base of the female squash flower--different plant, same concept.
Solution: my dad had to "Be the Bee". I suggested he use a small paint brush (or q-tip) and poke around gently into each flower with the same brush. This has to be repeated for each flower on each plant--easy enough if you have just a few plants. I also suggested his do this a few times each day for several days to ensure that he gets the pollen to the right parts of the flower when it is ready. Eventually, with luck, a few of the flowers will be properly pollinated and fruit will form. Unfortunately, unless some local bees discover his tomato plants, he'll have to hand pollinate for each tomato he hopes to harvest this year.
Results:(this is a direct email from my dad, and yes, this is EXACTLY where I get my awful sense of humor--please understand that as you read this potentially disgusting email string from father to daughter...)
Subject: We're Pregnant
Hi Sandra my Sandra:
I have two tiny green tomatoes on my smallest plant.
The other three are growing beautifully but only flowers no tomatoes.
I followed your advice; put on yellow and black stripped shirt and pants, flapped my arms, put a little brush in my mouth and made a continuous buzzzzing sound as I danced around each plant.
So this is a case in point of why bees are so crucial to our food supply. Without bees, my dads four small tomato plants were not setting fruit. He was able to remedy this with a very hands-on-approach and was successful in getting some tomatoes to set fruit. In my home garden I have 23 tomato plants, no way do I want to be out there with a tiny paint brush hand pollinating for each fruit I hope to harvest--it is possible, but not practical. Then imagine the massive scale of acres upon acres of tomatoes in a commercial field, it would be impossible for humans to hand pollinate on such a huge scale.
This is exactly why the survival of the honeybee is so important to all of us.
Go get 'em girls!