Not seeing that old familiar friend the honeybee buzzing around much? It’s not your imagination. Because of hive collapse disorder, tracheal mites and lost habitat, the honeybee population has dwindled over the last several years. And gardeners and growers have suffered right along with them.
That’s the bad news. The good news is there is an under sung, permanent resident ready to take up the charge. The Orchard Mason bee is a native, North American bee that has been around longer than the imported European honeybee and – although it doesn’t produce honey – has been pollinating fruit trees and flowers steadily for thousands of years.
America’s own pollinator
Never heard of the Mason bee? No surprise there. This little black bee works humbly in obscurity, quietly pollinating and laying eggs in old beetle holes, broken reeds or other gaps made by man or nature. Lisa Novich, owner of Knox Cellars Native Pollinating Bees in Washington state, explains that Mason bees are simple, non-aggressive bees that spend their days pollinating and laying eggs.
Because they have nothing to protect (unlike honeybees who store all their food and eggs in one place), Mason bees only sting if truly provoked. Novich, whose father Brian Griffin literally wrote the book on Mason bees, says, “They’re non-aggressive, so you can have a colony in your backyard. They’re not zoned out of neighborhoods like honeybees sometimes are. And they’re easy to raise in your home garden.”
Early bird gets the worm
The biggest advantage in raising Orchard Mason bees is that they are early spring pollinators. This means they start flying and pollinating as early as February or March in many parts of the country. In fact, as soon as daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees with some consistency, Mason bees will begin to fly.
Orchard bees will fly in colder, wetter weather because their dark color helps them absorb the heat of the sun. And because they tend to lay their eggs on warm sunny walls, Novich says, they can warm up in the sun, fly out and pollinate your fruit trees and still have energy to fly back to that warm, sunny wall.
Attracting the Mason bee
Novich notes that the Mason bee will not bore its own holes, so it is important to provide nesting material in order to attract them to your yard. This can take the form of wooden bee blocks with a series of holes drilled to accommodate bee eggs, replaceable cardboard tubes or other suitable holes.
Whatever type of nesting holes you choose, the most important thing to remember is to mount materials on the sunny side of a building. For most parts of the country, this means the south-facing side of a house or barn. Buildings are key because they tend to absorb heat (from inside and out), and they are stable. Fences and decks are bad choices because they shimmy and shake with wind and human interaction, often shaking loose the newly laid bee eggs.
Once you have put out suitable nesting material, you should start to see your little black friends buzzing in and out, pollinating and laying eggs. If you do not have a native population in your area, it is easy to purchase tubes of dormant bees, shipped in the winter and held in your fridge until spring.
Caring for your bee colony is easy. Simply provide nesting places and you’ll increase your colony. Novich says, “In a good spring you can get a five- or six-fold increase in your bee population,” but she warns gardeners not to cultivate too many bees. A population of about 800 will easily pollinate an acre of commercial fruit or an acre of suburban gardens. Any more than that and you risk weakening the population with lack of food.
Another thing to remember is to put out fresh nesting material each spring. Because the rich pollen and nectar mix seeps into the grain of the wood, old nesting blocks can harbor mites and bacteria that can kill your bee population. Novich suggests putting a fresh block or empty, clean cardboard tubes right next to your current block each spring. About five weeks or so after your first bee has emerged, you can simply toss away the old nesting material. This gives the dormant bees time to emerge and begin pollinating and forces them to use the new nesting holes when it’s time to reproduce.
With a few easy steps, you will soon be enjoying your very own Mason bee colony. And you’ll rest easy knowing you have native pollinators on the job increasing your fruit production and beautifying your garden for years to come.
Lisa Tiffin lives with her family in upstate New York, and she has high hopes for a budding relationship between her Mason bees and her new strawberry garden.
Remember . . .
Mason bees can only be shipped when they are dormant, usually between November and February.
For Spring Months:
? Set out clean, empty nesting material (bee boxes or cardboard nesting tubes) to attract existing Mason bees in your area.
? Plan ahead now to order dormant bees for next year.
For More Information:
? The Orchard Mason Bee. Brian Griffin, 1999. (Available through Knox Cellars)
To Purchase Bees and Nesting Material:
? Knox Cellars (bees, blocks, systems)
? Mason Bee Homes, 2460 Oakes Road, Black Creek, British Columbia, Canada V9J 1J1
? Boxcraft (bee blocks only – no bees) – 207 568-3162