Runner beans: failure to set pods

Failure of runner beans to set pods is a surprisingly widespread problem, particularly early in the season. Attention to soil conditions can help increase the harvest.

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Runner beans can often fail to set pods due to a number of reasons. Image: Mike Sleigh/RHS
Runner beans can often fail to set pods due to a number of reasons. Image: Mike Sleigh/RHS

Quick facts

Main causes: Insufficient irrigation; adverse weather; insect or bird damage; infrequent harvesting
Timing: Often affects crops flowering in early summer rather than later in the season

What is the problem?

Even under ideal conditions, sometimes more than half of runner bean flowers may fail to set bean pods. If significantly more than this fail to set pods, yield is noticeably reduced.

Controlling the problem

The following steps have been shown to help improve pod set in runner beans:

  • Plant or sow runner beans into soil that has had plenty of organic matter – such as well-rotted manure – added the previous autumn, as this will aid moisture and nutrient retention around the roots
  • Lime the soil before planting if the pH is below 6.5
  • If sowing outdoors, wait until mid-May or June to sow when frosts have passed 
  • Apply a mulch of organic matter over the root area, to help conserve moisture
  • Plant in a sheltered site, as this will encourage bees to visit and pollinate the plants
  • Rotate the crop each year, never growing it in the same site for two years running. This will help avoid build-up of pest and disease problems
  • Water in dry weather, giving 5-11 litres per sq m (1.1-2.2 gallons per 10 sq ft) twice a week throughout the cropping period
  • Don’t mist or spray the flowers with water (as used to be advocated) as this has not been shown to help pod-set and may deter bees
  • Take care when applying treatments for aphids or other insects on runner beans, pesticide will also kill bees and other pollinating insects. 
  • Where birds are a problem, try growing a variety with different colour flowers the following year, as this may deter them. If this does not work, consider growing a dwarf runner bean variety such as ‘Hestia’ or ‘Pickwick’, which can be netted against birds

What causes the problem?

The main causes of failure to set pods are:

  • Lack of moisture at the roots
  • Poor soil or growing conditions, such as acid soils below pH 6.5, pest or disease problems, frost damage, lack of nutrients or organic matter
  • Lack of pollinating insects, perhaps because of cold, wet or windy weather
  • Very hot weather, especially at night, which inhibits the germination of pollen grains, interrupting the pollination and fruit-set process. Cropping should resume in September, once the nights start to cool down
  • Nectar-robbing bumblebees. Some bumblebee species don’t have long enough tongues to reach the nectaries. They can rob the sweet nectar from the runner bean flowers by biting a hole at their base, without entering the mouth of the flower and coming into contact with the pollen-producing parts. There are usually plenty of pollinating insects that enter the flower in the normal way that this has a very limited effect on pollination and cropping
  • Birds, especially house sparrows, which peck at the flowers, making them harder for insects to pollinate
  • Infrequent harvesting: it is important to pick beans every two or three days, otherwise the pods will start to swell and set seed, which inhibits further pod production

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