Bees are an essential part of every garden. From April to June they’ll collect nectar and pollinate one of every three bites of food Americans consume. Their sting may give them a bad wrap, but what if you could have the benefits without the sting?
Most gardeners and farmers are aware of the honey bee’s plight. After all, honeybees pollinate fruit blossoms and produce sweet amber honey. Colony collapse disorder, though, has decimated their numbers, forcing growers to turn to other pollinators for solutions. Pollinators, like the mason bee, are less impacted by pesticides, disease and mono-crop growing methods without shrubs, flowers or cover crops. These gentle, solitary bees are pollinating powerhouses. One mason bee can do the pollinating work of 100 honeybees!
Keeping native non-stinging mason bees — even in urban spaces — is a surprisingly easy way to help the environment, and it’s also an inexpensive and educational project for kids. The best news is that these hyper-efficient air pollinators will do wonders for your fruit crops and gardens!
In North America, there are about 140 different mason bee species — with about 200 species worldwide. Known for being great pollinators, mason bees look very similar to common house flies — with black bodies and a dark blue iridescent sheen.
Unlike garden-variety honeybees, mason bees are non-social creatures that nest in holes rather than in a hive with a queen. Mason bees work alone, but like to nest in groups when possible — there is no cooperation concerning the nest’s construction or the rearing of the brood, and therefore, no aggression issues!
Mason bees gain their name from the way that the females protect their eggs: They’ll form an egg chamber in the deepest part of their hole and seal it with mud, repeating the process until the hole is full of eggs.
Known for being solitary hard workers, orchard bees only live for about 8-10 weeks in the spring, typically from mid March until the end of May or early June (the fittest season for pollinating fruit trees and berries!). The bees will then hibernate for about 10 months and later emerge with great energy for more pollination duty.
Top 10 Mason Beekeeping Tips for Families1. Don’t be afraid. Male orchard bees don’t have stingers, and — since they have no queen to protect and all of the females are fertile — they’re not aggressive. It’s still possible to get stung by females, though the sting is more akin to a mosquito bite than your average bee sting.
2. Pollen is important. If there isn’t enough pollen in your yard, mason bees will move on to other areas.
3. Keeping nesting boxes. South-facing garage, house, or garden shed walls are ideal areas for establishing your nesting boxes. Families will also want to make sure that food is available within about 300 feet of the nest — this is as far as the bees will travel. Make a note of all of the plants on the list that you see in this area, and remember: these bees won’t stop at your property line — they’ll go across the street or into a neighbor’s yard for pollen if they need to.
4. Mud is a must. Since female mason bees need mud for their eggs, it’s important to have open ground (without grass or bark covering) nearby. Families can also make a “mud pie,” with the soil moist, but not soupy. Your little ones might be the right “chefs” for this project!
Bees are weak when they first emerge, so it’s best to keep the mud pie not directly under the nest (they could fall in).
5. Choosing nesting materials. Pull-apart wooden blocks, cardboard with paper lining, drilled blocks and homemade paper tubes can all work well for nesting. Pull-apart wooden blocks can be a great material since they’re porous (allowing moisture to escape), and they’re easy to clean, sanitize, and reuse.
Paper products can be hard to use due to the Ohio Valley’s damp climate, but they’re a great project for kids to make on their own. Drilled blocks must be made new each year — they can get infected with microscopic pests and cannot be cleaned.
6. Observing your bees. Mason bees are fascinating to watch —they can be just as educational for kids as they are eco-friendly. Here are some fun things that kids can observe about their small and industrious new friends:
-Pollen on the female as she returns to the nest (a clean belly means that she has mud to take home).
-When the food supply is complete, the female will come out of her nest, turn around, and then back herself in to lay another egg.
-If a mason bee accidentally goes into another bee’s hole, the intruder will quickly back out and find the correct nest. Their individual pheromones help them identify their own hole.
-When the female is adding her final mud plug, she’ll go around and around the hole’s opening as she works to close the egg chamber.
-Using a flashlight at night or in the early morning, you can see the bees at rest in the front of their holes, with their eyes looking out at you.
-Watch your mason bees as they work on blossoms in the yard, and notice which plants they like to frequent.
-Look for the antennae that distinguish them from flies.
-Learn to distinguish the males from the females by spotting the white hair on the males’ heads.
7. Be on guard for predators. Robins, crows, starlings and woodpeckers prey on adult mason bees as they emerge from their nests. The bees are especially vulnerable in the early morning when they bask in the sun to warm up enough to fly, or while they’re out in the open gathering mud.
For the birds, these sweet little bees are like candy — especially if they find a nesting block that happens to be filled with a lot of bees. The best way to avoid predators is to store the nest in the garage or shed at the end of the active period. If you’re using a paper product and have lots of squirrels, chicken wire can be added around the box to prevent them from pulling the tubes out and devouring the contents.
8. Setting your materials out in the spring. Nesting units need to be protected from rain and wind. Keeping them mounted with the cavities tilting slightly down will prevent rainwater from entering and creating harmful mold. Securing the nesting units will also prevent movement that could dislodge eggs or young larvae. The space may only be a mere 3/8 of an inch, but the babies are too weak to crawl back in.
Nesting materials need to be set out before nesting begins (mid to late March), since the females lay the most eggs in the beginning of the season. However, it’s also important to note that if the materials are set out too early, your progeny could be mostly male.
Placing the nesting units on the south-facing side of the building is key — the bees need to warm up to 80 degrees for their wings to function. Mason bees’ black bodies can soak up rays even when it’s only 58-64 degrees outside, making exposure to direct sunlight very important.
9. Harvesting your bees. Just like caring for a fish tank, the bees and nesting materials need to be cleaned each fall, or families could risk losing their colony. Pests, mites, and chalkbrood fungus can be greatly reduced by opening and sanitizing the nesting material each October.
10. Attracting a variety of pollinators. Fruit trees are not required to be a bee farmer; plant for all seasons, and not just for March-June. Native wildflowers with colors such as blue, purple, and yellow (clover, dandelions) are recommended, along with one of the best sources for pollen: big-leaf maples.
Encourage organic practices: Add holes with different drill bits to dead trees for various flying pollinators; set aside a bare patch of ground for ground nesting pollinators; and avoid using chemicals and pesticides.