by Charlene Burgi
This past Sunday I walked into a favorite big-box store to find a plethora of fruit trees, potted annuals, perennials and gardening accessories facing me head on. I felt like a kid in a candy store. The desire was to purchase at least one of everything. Luckily, I had driven my SUV instead of the truck, so transport limitations dictated some restraint.
Nonetheless, I was captivated by a Swiss Alps beehouse that shouted out, “Home for mason bees here!” The price was right, it would easily fit into my car along with the mountain of supplies to fortify my critters and me for a while—and it had a promise to entice pollinators to live comfortably in the garden and assure increased garden yields.
Mason bees are welcome to any garden. They are native, solitary-living bees—meaning there are many individual working queens instead of just one queen bee as found in the social hierarchy hives. The female mason bee’s sole job is to pollinate and reproduce. The bonus of attracting these natives is that they rarely sting, which, as I understand, should it occur equates to a sensation similar to a mosquito bite. They do not swarm, nor do they make honey. It is said their work of pollination surpasses a honeybee 80 times over. It makes me wonder if the term “busy as a bee” had the mason bee in mind!
As I researched, I learned that instead of buying a beehouse, I could have made one with just a 4 x 8 piece of lumber. Drilling holes 6 inches into the core of the wood using a 5/16-inch drill bit creates a space for these female worker bees to complete the reproductive cycle. It is recommended that their house be installed 5 feet high on the east-facing wall of a building closest to the garden. Provide a mud slurry near the house for the bees to use to protect the cells where they lay their eggs. I learned the queen will lay the female eggs first at the deepest portion of the hole, thereby protecting them from predators, while the male eggs are laid closer to the opening of the tubes. Rich gold pollen then surrounds each egg so food is readily available once the life cycle of the larva is complete—typically within a few days. I was also very surprised to read that the bee only lives four to six weeks!
Providing food for these bees presented another study. It seems the best food for mason bees is typically native plants of the area, but fruit trees, vines, flowers and veggies in bloom will benefit from the intense pollination provided by these insects. I wondered if their presence multiplied would help produce apples on a tree that I suspect might be barren. Or has it been the lack of a pollinator doing its job in the past?
The focus is now on what flowers might be in bloom when the average temperature reaches 55 degrees. This seems to be the magic number for mason bees to emerge for the spring. As afore mentioned, the little kid in me can’t wait for spring to begin in earnest. How about you?