Pollination of food crops is essential to society, for without this pollination service, most fruits, nuts and other foods would simply disappear off our dinner tables. Today, the world depends on a variety of pollinators to perform this task from a variety of sources: Honeybees and a number of other insects – and the hard working Mason Bee. [Originally posted June 2011]
The current problem with global pollination and the Honey Bee is that it is being killed off by the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus and the Verroa mite. This disease has no cure in sight, and is responsible for a drop in U.S. Honeybee hives from over 8 million hives just ten years ago to less than 4.5 million hives today, and still falling.
There is currently one domesticated Bee that can meet part of the challenge of early season pollination needs – The Blue Orchard Bee or Mason Bee. You will be rewarded with more fruit by having Mason Bees in your garden.
The Mason Bee is a solitary insect that rears its young in existing holes. They gather pollen and nectar from most plants, and pollinate as they do so. The Mason Bee is extremely gentle, looks like a large black fly, cannot sting, is fairly social (they like to be next to each other) and are active only between March and early June.
In late February or early March, the Bee hatches from egg/cocoons laid the previous year. These eggs have been laid in a small hole or nesting area, with a supply of pollen, one egg and then walled up with mud – hence the name “Mason Bee”. Both males and females hatch and emerge from their nests, and soon after, the females are mated. After mating the males soon die, leaving the females to carry on the work of providing for the next generation.
Habitat requirements – VIP!
In nature – Mason Bee’s, lay their eggs in small holes in trees, roof shingles or any dry area they can place pollen, lay an egg, and seal with mud. The opening is ideally the size of a “fast food” straw- large enough to enter, maneuver down and exit.
It is important to have a clean environment for them, as mites and other insects can, and do use the same space to lay their eggs. Paper straw-like tubes are the best habitat, as this paper material wicks away the moisture of the developing bee during its nine months in this environment.
Some “don’ts “
- Do not use wooden blocks with holes – “you can’t clean them” for reuse before the bees return.
- Do not use or allow the use of the old paper tubes – they may – (almost always) are filled with mites, which will kill your newly laid Mason Bee eggs.
- Do not use “Plastic tubing” material – plastic material will not allow the moisture to “wick” away – killing, drowning – you’re newly laid Mason Bees.
- Always use fresh Paper Tubes.
- Discard used tubes after the bees have hatched, replace with fresh.
- Save money by making your own paper tubes (free) – although you can always buy them for 10-25 cents each.
- Place new tubes with a supply of filled tubes – at a rate of about one filled tube to 12 fresh empty tubes – seems to be a good mix.
- Place tubes in a wooden box, with an overhang from the weather – to face west (they like heat) – avoid all chance of the tubes getting wet during their time in the garden.
Placement of 50-500 paper tubes in a shelter from the weather near flowering trees and plants in Feb, and remove by mid June. Place in your garage or other outside, but weather proof area. Remove the filled tubes, and refill your boxes with fresh empty tubes, and a supply of the filled tubes to make ready for the next year. Expand your boxes or give some bees to friends with instructions on how to make the tubes and aid their garden pollination.
There is a handout on “How to make your own paper tubes”.
John Overleese, Master Gardener King County