Why you should thank a bee for your apple

Fall is approaching fast and that means one thing: apple picking season! If you’re from the Northeast, apple picking may have been a staple for you growing up. I know for me it was, and I would get particularly excited about my mom’s homemade apple crisp.

Apple picking is a great activity that can be done socially distanced! Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

Something you may not have thought about when strolling the orchards or eating your grandmother’s famous apple pie is: how did this apple come to be?

Before we get to Grandma’s apple pie, we need to rewind a little bit. Back to springtime to be specific. 

On a New England day in May, if you found yourself in an apple orchard, you would be met with sweet smells and the sight of trees covered in blossoms. If you looked more closely, you might find the secret to all the busy orchards in the fall. You guessed it, you would see lots and lots of bees. These bees are providing a critical service to the apple trees; by transferring pollen from tree to tree, they are fertilizing the soon-to-be-seeds in the apple flower. Once fertilized, the plant makes a protective and nutritious encasement around the seeds, which lucky for us, is an apple! 

A bumble bee visits an apple blossom. Image Credit: Flickr (Silver Leapers)

Apple farmers know they need pollination to occur in order to get a fruit, so many set up their orchards in a way that ensures a good fruit set. They do this by setting up what’s called “pollination partners.”  Apple blossoms only bloom for around 9 days, so it is important that there are other trees nearby that are also blooming in order for cross-pollination to occur. By planting genetically compatible trees that bloom during the same time, farmers ensure that their apple trees will get pollinated and therefore get a good fruit set. 

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) have been historically and commonly used as a way to ensure pollination in apple orchards. These days, thousands of honey bee hives are trucked in for the short, four-week apple blooming season. Some orchards also use managed bumble bees (Bombus spp.) or mason bees (Osmia spp.), although this practice is much less common. 

However, growing evidence suggests that the most important pollinators are the wild bees that are already visiting the orchards. Wild mining bees (Andrena spp.), sweat bees (Lasioglossum spp.), cellophane bees (Colletes spp.), and mason bees (Osmia spp.) are all commonly found visiting apple blossoms in spring. Not only that, but wild bees have evolved to live in harsh spring conditions, so they pollinate in colder wetter weather when honey bees refuse to forage. Even more importantly, wild bees transfer more pollen than honey bees per visit and make more visits per hour. Taken together, over the blooming period of an orchard, wild bees are much more effective pollinators than honey bees. 

To learn more about the amazing diversity and life history of wild bees you can find in eastern apple orchards, click here

Regardless of what bee visited the flowers that made your apple possible, next time you take a bite into a crispy red apple, make sure to thank a bee! And if you, like me, will be bringing in the Jewish New Year tomorrow night with the tradition of dipping apples in honey, make sure to thank many bees!

Apple dipped in apple blossom honey, what a treat! Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

*TPI tip*

You know that crabapple tree outside your house that’s just covering your yard with small rotten apples? Harvest your crabapples! Crabapples are wild apples that are edible (never poisonous!) and make great applesauce and apple butter. I made this batch from foraged crabapples I found in the area.

Homemade crabapple butter. Image Credit: Sylvie Finn

Let’s celebrate pollinators!

How to bake pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) empanadas

When I was growing up, my mom often bought pumpkin empanadas from El Aguila bakery in Fremont, Ohio. Let me tell you, there isn’t anything better with a hot cup of coffee.

As a kid, I never realized the important role pollinators play in creating these special treats. While many crops are pollinated by the wind (wheat, corn, rice), many fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. In fact, two important ingredients in my favorite empanada recipe benefit from animal pollinators. 

Without insect pollinators, particularly bees, there would be no pumpkin, the main ingredient of the empanada filling. Pumpkin vines produce male and female flowers – this means that some flowers produce pollen, while other flowers bear fruits. Pollen from the anthers of male flowers must be deposited on the stigmas of female flowers for the vine produce fruit. Since pumpkin pollen grains are very heavy, pumpkin flowers cannot be pollinated by the wind. Instead, pollen grains must hitch a ride on a bee.

One of the cutest – and most important – pollinators of pumpkin are squash bees (Eucera pruinosa). Squash bees are solitary, ground nesting bees: a single female digs a nest for her offspring in the soil. Found in both the United States and Mexico, squash bees collect pollen exclusively from plants in the gourd family (genus Cucurbita), including pumpkin, zucchini, and summer squash. These little bees are super effective pollinators of squash plants, transferring up to 4 times as much pollen between flowers as honeybees.

Photo Credit: Elsa Youngsteadt

Oranges, used to flavor the filling of empanadas, are another ingredient which can benefit from insect pollinators. Unlike pumpkin flowers, orange flowers are hermaphroditic: flowers can produce pollen and bear fruits. Orange flowers can be pollinated without help of insects if pollen from anthers is shed directly onto the stigma of the flower. However, orange flowers still are better off with bees than without. Without the help of an insect, flowers may be insufficiently pollinated, and will produce smaller and more acidic fruits. Sweet orange production is 35% higher for flowers visited by pollinating insects (like honeybees) compared to unvisited flowers.

Photo Credit: Kathy Keatley Garvey

In honor of National Pollinator Week, I wanted to share with you one of my favorite recipes for pumpkin empanadas, modified from a recipe originally published by La Piña en La Cocina.

Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) Empanadas


For the Pastry:

  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cold butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 1 large egg at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 2/3 cups warm milk (110 degrees F)

For the filling:

  • 16 oz canned roasted and pureed pumpkin
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 6 star anise pods
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • Zest from one orange

For assembly

  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 lightly beaten egg white


To prepare the pasty, sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Cut in butter, then cut in sugar, cinnamon, and yeast. Add the egg, and slowly incorporate milk until a dough forms. Knead for 6-8 minutes. The dough should be fairly sticky. If it is too dry, add more milk, and if it is too wet, add flour. Let rise about 2 hours.

To prepare the filling, boil star anise and the cinnamon stick in about 1 cup of water for about 10 minutes (or until about half of the water is evaporated). Add pumpkin, sugar, and juice concentrate to ¼ cup of this liquid, and cook until thickened, about 10-20 minutes. Let the filling cool in the fridge.

After the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Punch down the dough and divide into 1.5 oz balls. Roll out each ball until it is 4 inches in diameter. Place two tablespoons of filling in the center of the dough.

Brush the edges of the dough with egg white and fold the over dough and press out any air. Crimp the edges using a fork, or pinch to seal. Place the filled pastry on a greased backing tray. Repeat until all of the dough has been used. Once the pastries are all shaped, bush tops with milk. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the pastry becomes a dark, golden brown. Makes 10-12 empanadas (which are best eaten within a day or two).

Enjoy! I hope you all have a very happy National Pollinator Week!


Canto-Aguilar, M. A., & Parra-Tabla V. (2000). Importance of conserving alternative pollinators: assessing the pollination efficiency of the squash bee, Peponapis limitaris in Cucurbita moschata (Cucurbitaceae). Journal of Insect Conservation 4: 203–210.

Malerbo-Souza, D. T., Nogueira-Couto, R. H., & Couto, L. A. (2004). Honey bee attractants and pollination in sweet orange, Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck, var. Pera-Rio. Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins including Tropical Diseases 10(2): 144–153.