Of the 4,000 bee species native to North America, mason bees are among the easiest to raise, while also being gentle and amazing pollinators. Mason bees nest in pre-made holes and hole-nesting bees represent about 25% of the world’s bee species. We can increase mason bee populations by raising them in our backyards and gardens, which is a great way to supplement the stressed honeybee, sustain our future food supply, and provide nesting sites for other native bees, too.
The blue orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) is a very productive pollinator for spring flowering fruit and nut trees and spring berry plants. A female mason bee carries pollen mainly on the underside of her hairy abdomen and scrapes the pollen off within her nesting hole. She carries the pollen dry on her belly and it falls off easily as she moves among flowers. Mason bees are generalists that love to visit a variety of flowers.
Dry, loose pollen carried on the large surface of the mason bee’s belly results in significantly more pollinated flowers. Honeybees, on the other hand, wet the pollen and stick it to their hind legs to transport to the hive. Mason bees are an awesome cross-pollinator because they busily flit back and forth between branches and trees, instead of focusing on stripping pollen and nectar from one location.
Another reason Mason bees are easy to maintain is because of their solitary nature. Like 90% of the world’s 21,000 bee species are solitary, meaning that they do not live in a hive. Female Mason bees build their own nests, gather their own food, and lay their own eggs. With all this work to do, Mason bees are far too busy to be aggressive towards people. They only sting as a last resort, and the venom they release from a sting is very mild. If you’re allergic to honeybees, Mason bees are a great alternative. You can watch them work without fear of being stung.
Mason bees are easy to care for because they will nest in pre-made holes and will spend the winter hibernating in their own waterproof cocoons. The materials needed to start and maintain your Mason bee population are affordable and come in a variety of price ranges. You will not need to buy protective gear to handle the cocoons or to protect yourself from these docile bees, and you can have their housing materials set up in as little as 15 minutes! Pick a spot in your yard, set up their house, and watch them start gathering pollen and laying eggs for next season. You will spend more time watching these gentle, industrious bees than you will caring for them!
When your mason bees are done flying, bring the nesting material inside to protect your developing bees from pests, which takes about 10 minutes. In the fall, allow about 30 minutes to harvest the cocoons and store them for the winter. In just 1 to 2 hours a year of your time, you’ll get a robust garden yield and amazing garden companions.
Once your bees have settled in their nest and are not flying, bring the materials indoors. This will protect them from pests. You’ll also need to harvest the bees’ cocoons in the fall. Bring the cocoons inside for the winter to ensure the bees will survive until spring. This harvest will take roughly 30 minutes. It only takes a small investment of your time to enjoy these wonderful insects in your yard.
If you can dig up some soil and plant a flower garden, you can provide a welcoming environment for native bees. Remember that native bees like native plants. In fact, they are four times more likely to be attracted to native plants than to other blooms. Bees will need blooms throughout their active season, so try to grow a variety of plants. Make sure you have some that bloom in the spring, some that bloom in the summer, and some that bloom in late summer or fall, if possible. Bees can even use some flowers as natural remedies to keep themselves healthy. So do your research and don’t limit yourself to one or two kinds of flowers. Also, avoid harsh lawn chemicals, as these can hurt native bees. Bees rely on their sense of smell to navigate, and strong chemicals can confuse them.
In addition to flowering plants, Mason bees need moist, clayey soil to survive. They use this soil to protect their egg chambers. When you see Mason bees flying around in your yard, take your shovel or spade and turn up a patch of soil for them. Remember, they will not be able to nest in your yard if your soil is too dry or sandy. If you have sandy soil, you will have to bring in a clay mud mixture for the bees.
To make sure your Mason bees are safe and secure, you will need a certain type of nesting materials. The Mason bees’ house must be able to keep them dry, and should be designed to open easily for cocoon harvesting. Cocoon harvesting in the fall is a must if you want your bee population to stay healthy and survive the winter. If no harvesting occurs, the bees will be at risk for pests like pollen mites and diseases like chalkbrood. The harvested cocoons can be stored in your refrigerator during the winter months.
Natural lake reeds are the preferred housing material of the Mason bee. Each mason bee species varies in size, and they want a home that is the right size for them. Lake reeds vary in size and also offer great protection against parasitic wasps. Mason bees will also nest in bamboo tubes or in drilled blocks of wood, but these materials cannot be opened for cleaning or inspection.
You will want to set up your Mason bee house off the ground, roughly at eye level, so that you can look into it and inspect it easily. The morning sun will warm up the bees, giving them a boost of energy to start their day. So make sure your house faces east, towards the sunrise. Birds and bees don’t always mix, so make sure not to install your bee house near any birdhouses. You may also attach bird wire with one-inch openings at the front of the house, leaving a few inches of space at the front of the house to ensure that bees have enough room to take off and to land. If you are using loose nesting materials such as lake reeds, place them haphazardly in your yard. This may sound messy, but female Mason bees use sight markers to find their hole. This arbitrary look will actually help them find their tubes more quickly.
In 2016, the UN announced a sobering statistic. Nearly 40% of insect pollinators are in danger of becoming extinct. This could have drastic consequences on food supplies and on plant and animal life. Native bees need our help to survive and thrive, and raising Mason bees is one way to help. Mason bees stay close to home and pollinate a variety of plants, and their houses provide habitats for other types of wild bees. Raising Mason bees will help you see your backyard in a new light.
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