Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; firstname.lastname@example.org
A female watermelon flower will need around 500-1000 pollen grains to be fertilized effectively. This will require a minimum of 8 visits by a honey bee for seeded watermelons. In seedless watermelon more visits will be required. The pollen produced by seedless watermelons is not viable. To fertilize seedless watermelon, pollen must be transferred from viable male flowers in standard or special pollinizer seeded types to triploid seedless female flowers. Because bees foraging in seedless watermelon plantings carry a mix of viable and non-viable pollen, more pollination visits (16 to 24) by honey bees are needed to set fruit.
First planted watermelons are now flowering in Delaware and Maryland. Honey bees should be placed when the first female flowers appear to achieve good crown sets without defects (i.e. prominent lobes or hollow heart). Placement should be made before 10% of plants are in bloom.
The crown set in watermelon is fruit that set on one of the first 8 nodes of the plant. This is often the most profitable, especially early in the season. Poor crown sets in watermelon can occur when there is poor weather during early flowering. Honey bee flights are reduced significantly in rain and when winds are 15 mph or greater. Cloudy weather also reduces bee activity. Honey Bees also do not fly much below 55°F, so on cold mornings, as we often have in June, bee activity will not pick up until later in the morning. Unfortunately, female watermelon flowers open early in the morning, are most receptive before 10 am, and then close in the afternoon.
In addition, in early mornings and during poor weather, bees usually visit plants closest to the hives. As the temperature rises or the weather improves, the bees will forage further from the hive. This means that in bad weather watermelons closest to the hives will have the best set and furthest from the hives will have reduced set.
Another problem that causes crown set reduction is the loss of pollenizer plants due to unfavorable weather conditions during or after planting. This means that pollen will be limiting. Research has shown that were pollen is limiting, fruit numbers will be reduced with distance from a pollen source. In fields with limited pollen, expect reduced fruit set or reduced fruit size in areas where pollenizers are missing.
Watermelon growers can manage crops for improved pollination and fruit set with honey bees by:
- Increasing the number of honey bee hives for early watermelon crops. A minimum of one strong hive per acre is recommended in general and 2 hives per acre can be justified for early planted fields.
- Placing hives in several locations in a field rather than just on one edge. While bees will fly over a mile, the best pollination activity is closest to the hives. Hives placed within the field will provide more bee visits to the crop compared to edge placements. Place hives in groups of 4-8 in good locations throughout the field to have even distribution of bees.
- Having ample sources of pollen by planting pollenizers at a minimum ratio of one pollenizer per every 3 seedless plants. Use the most effective pollenizers as shown by local trials. In-row pollenizers should have limited competitiveness with the seedless melons.
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