When Liz Greene contacted me about writing a guest post, I was 1. So excited- my first guest post! And 2. So thankful- because it turns out I knew absolutely NOTHING about Mason Bees, and after learning about them, I can’t believe I haven’t been welcoming them to the homestead with open arms!
Adding to the spring to-do list: make an epic Mason Bee hotel.
Thanks to Liz for this great information all about Mason Bees- why we want them hanging around our gardens and orchards, how they’re different than honey bees, and how to attract them and care for them. Take it away, Liz!
Photo Credit: Algidus
As a result of the startling decline in the honeybee population, gardeners and farmers alike have started leaning on another buzzworthy friend — the orchard mason bee. These exceptional pollinators make nests in reeds and natural holes, creating separate cells for their brood that are divided by mud partitions. They are solitary bees, which means that unlike honeybees, every female lays eggs and raises offspring on her own — no colony required. Let’s explore these interesting little creatures in depth!
An Interesting Life Cycle
Orchard mason bees emerge from hibernation in early spring — once temperatures consistently stay around 55 degrees. The males emerge first and remain near the nesting site, waiting for the females to follow. Once a female emerges from the nest, she mates with one of the males and then starts the hunt for a nesting site of her own.
Mason bees nest in small natural cavities such as woodpecker holes, insect holes, and hollow stems. Because they are unable to excavate their own nesting cavities, they’re incredibly opportunistic — just as happy to lay their eggs in artificial nesting chambers as those which occur naturally. While good nesting material is important, so is having the proper mud available. A female is likely to inspect several potential nests before choosing one and setting to work.
After mating and finding a place to nest, the female gathers mud in her jaws and uses it to build a wall in the rear of the tunnel. She then makes several trips to nearby fruit trees, berries, flowers, and vegetables to gather pollen and nectar. She packs the pollen into a small nugget and places it into the far end of the nesting cavity, continuing her back and and forth trips until she’s satisfied there’s enough there to feed a young bee. She works tirelessly during the day, stopping only once the sun has gone down.
Once the pollen supply is large enough, the little mason bee backs into the hole and lays an egg directly upon it. She collects mud to create a partition and then continues this sequence until she has filled the nesting hole with a series of offspring. Once the nest is complete, she plugs the entrance with a thick mud wall to protect her brood from predators and sets out to find another location for a nest. She works tirelessly through her four to eight week life, filling an average of four tubes with about eight eggs each. Once her work is done, she dies.
Inside the nesting chambers, the eggs begin their transformation to adult bees. They hatch into larvae and consume the pollen-nectar stockpile their mother collected. After a short rest, the larva spins a cocoon, and by late summer, a fully-formed adult bee occupies each chamber. The bee waits through the fall and winter months until the spring air temperature rises to a consistent 55-degree range. It then emerges from the tunnel to mate and repeat the cycle all over again.
Our Gentle Friend
Orchard mason bees, like all mason bees, are incredibly gentle and will only sting if they perceive a serious threat. The males lack a stinger, and the females only sting if stepped on or squeezed. Unlike honeybees, they will not attack to defend themselves. Because of their laid- back behavior, orchard mason bees are a favorite of those who need pollination in urban settings. They’re an an ideal neighbor for the home garden, since they pose little to no threat of stinging.
The Great Pollinator
Since honeybees pollinate 80% of our flowering crops — constituting a third of everything we eat — finding a sturdy replacement to bolster their declining numbers is incredibly important. That’s where the orchard mason bee shines.
Orchard mason bees are phenomenal pollinators; 250 to 300 females can pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries. They’re far more efficient pollinators than honeybees because of the way the female carries pollen. When working to store food for her offspring, the female carries pollen on the underside of her hairy abdomen, scraping it off once she’s safe within the nesting hole. Because the pollen is carried dry on her hair, it falls off easily as she maneuvers among the flowers.
Attracting Mason Bees to the Garden
You can attract mason bees in the early spring months by providing nesting tunnels, plenty of food, and a mud source.
Mason bee houses can be bought or made from wood, hollow reeds, or cardboard with paper lining. Pull-apart wooden blocks are a particularly good nesting material, as they’re porous, easy to clean, sanitize, and reuse. If you end up using a solid wood block, you’ll need to replace it each year since it can become infected with microscopic pests and cannot be cleaned.
Mount your nesting unit securely on the south-facing side of a building, tree, or fence. Direct sunlight is important as the bees need to warm up to 80 degrees for their wings to function. To protect nesting units from rain and wind, keep them mounted with the cavities tilting slightly down to prevent rainwater from entering and creating mold.
Female orchard mason bees need clay-like mud to create partitions, so you’ll want to place the nesting unit near open ground (without grass or bark covering). The nest will also need to be within 200 to 300 feet of pollen-rich, spring-blossoming plants and trees. Fruit trees are not required — blue, purple, and yellow native wildflowers, as well as big-leaf maples, will provide plenty for the bees to work with.
In late fall, store your egg-filled nest boxes in a dark, unheated garage or shed in order to protect them from the cold of winter. In early spring, before the fruit trees blossom and other spring-blooming flowers appear, return the nesting units to your garden.
Finally, and most importantly, avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides in your garden. Many of them are harmful (or lethal) to bees. Orchard mason bees are absolutely delightful little creatures, and will make a lovely addition to any garden. So get out there and make (or buy) a nesting box — your plants will thank you for it!
Liz Greene is a dog loving, history studying, pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.
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