Updated: Mar 5, 2020
If you missed our class on raising Mason bees, you might be wondering what the big deal is. Aren't they just like any other bee? Aren't they a pest? Well, what if we told you these little bees are small but mighty, and hold a lot more potential, and less of a threat than you think. The cycle is beginning now, so get your garden ready for these friendly pollinators to hatch!
You may have heard about the phenomenon of honey bee loss, so you know it is quite detrimental to our planet. These pollinators have become absolutely essential to the balance of the ecosystem, but honey bees aren't even native to our area, they're European! Mason bees are our Western native pollinator, and they come with a long list of benefits. At Garden Spot Nursery, we provide free information about Mason bees for our customers, and 10% of sales on Mason bee products will go toward Common Threads, a Bellingham, WA based non-profit that promotes a seed-to-table approach to food production, nutrition and environmental stewards.
Why Raise Mason Bees
Right off the bat, Mason bees are objectively the best pollinator there is. They will effectively pollinate 1,600 flowers per day while a honeybee will only pollinate about 30. They are considered "non-stingers" since they are so focused on food and egg production, they won't bother you. In the unlikely event of being stung, they are nonlethal to those who may be highly allergic to most bee stings. Mason bees are easy to care for, since they nest in pre-made holes and naturally hibernate during the winter. That's right, no hive. These are solitary bees, so each female will focus solely on her offspring, and you won't have to worry about swarms. Housing materials are affordable and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, plus you won't need any protective gear since they are nonthreatening! Once winter rolls around, it will take you a maximum of 30 minutes to bring your bees inside to protect them during hibernation. A cinch! They really are a no brainer if you want to raise pollinators in the Northwest.
What You Will Need
Before you begin raising your bees, you will need to think about where they will live. Mason bees' houses should keep them dry, and you will want to be able to open it to harvest the cocoons. The deeper the hole, the more female eggs produced, so about 6 inches will be acceptable. We recommend one of two methods: a cardboard straw system with a white paper straw inside, or wooden segmented blocks, available at Garden Spot Nursery. There other options including bamboo tubes or drilled holes in a single block of wood, but these do not allow for cleaning or inspection, which can leave your bees susceptible to mites and other pests, so we advise you to try our methods. Both were developed by Bellingham native Brian Griffin, and are supported by Knox Cellars Mason Bees in Bremerton, WA.
Preparing Your Garden
Mason bees will prefer a variety of flowers and plants, so be sure not to limit your garden to one or two. Also, avoid using harsh chemicals on your lawn and garden, as they can be harmful to the bees. Provide your bees with a mud puddle near their house, and mist it daily to maintain proper moisture. Set up your bees' house off the ground, away from rodents and other pests, and face it east so that the morning sun will warm and wake your bees. Keep away from birdhouses, if you have any.
What Happens Next
When temperatures reach 50-55 degrees, the few male bees will emerge from their cocoons first, followed shortly by the females. After a brief mating period, the female takes the lead and begins cross-pollinating your flowers and fruits. She will use the mud puddle you provided to build up a support wall in her first nesting chamber, then begin packing nectar and pollen against it to lay her first egg. Female eggs will be laid deeper in the hole, protected from pests and predators by the less crucial male eggs. Once the chamber is full, she will close it off with more mud and start again. All the while, she will fly about your garden, pollinating your plants in the process. Mason bees will typically stay within 100 yards of their nest, which is why they are so reliable easy to keep track of.
Watch the houses as your bees repopulate, making sure you have enough nesting areas for each new egg. By mid-April, all of your bees should be hatched, and routinely flying around your garden. They will be easy to spot as they are all black. At this time you can open up your segmented blocks or remove the paper liners to be sure that all bees have hatched. By mid-July, your adult female bees have done their job and will retire. The eggs begin spinning their cocoon to hibernate so they will be ready for you next Spring! At this time, you should bring them inside a garage or shed to additionally protect them. Check on them once or twice throughout the fall and winter, just to be sure you will have a good group for next year, and that they haven't been affected by mites or fungi.
We hope you find raising Mason bees a fun new hobby, and great way to pollinate your garden while sustaining the environment by lightening the burden on the honey bee. We can't wait to hear about your experience with raising Mason bees, and are always available to answer any questions you may have! Garden Spot Nursery works with Knox Cellars Mason Bees to bring the joy of beekeeping to you, so check out the available resources on their website, www.knoxcellarsmasonbees.com, as well!