Meet the Mason Bee, Your Pollinator Pal

By Jennifer Crouch

Beneficial pollinators are one of the secrets to a healthy organic garden, and the most well-known of these gardener’s friends is the honeybee. But did you know that these charming little pollinators aren’t native to North America? Honeybees first arrived with European immigrants in the 1600s, while their lesser known, but vitally important compatriots, native North American bees still diligently pollinate our continent today.

Photo by Flickr user Plan_9.

Photo by Flickr user Plan_9.

One of our region’s most industrious native pollinators is the mason bee. Compared to the European honeybee, they tolerate poor weather conditions better, pollinate FAR more flowers per day and typically emerge much earlier in the season. Mason bees are also sometimes referred to as blue orchard bees because they are active in the early spring when fruit trees are blooming (specify late February to mid March). Just three mason bees can pollinate an entire fruit tree!

Photo by Flickr user Krista.

Photo by Flickr user Krista.

These non-aggressive bees build solitary nests in narrow, deep holes, often in reed grass, tree snags or in decrepit buildings, not directly in the ground. They lay eggs individually and cap each egg cell with mud, giving them their common name. Mason bees are mostly black with antenna, easily mistaken for flies. Be careful the next time you swat!

Photo by Flickr user Martin Webber.

Photo by Flickr user Martin Webber.

Mites and chalk brood fungus are mason bees’ enemies. You can minimize these dangers by choosing a good nesting material, such as a wooden nesting box that can be taken apart to clean and disinfect.

Bob Redmond of the Urban Bee Co. installs a native pollinator station for research with WSU at Seattle Tilth Farm Works in Auburn.

Bob Redmond of the Urban Bee Company installs a native pollinator station for research with WSU at Seattle Tilth Farm Works in Auburn.

To host mason bees in your garden, follow a few essential tips:

  • Buy bees from a reliable source. Buy bees locally or rent your bees to start off easy!
  • Choose good nesting material. Bamboo, paper and bored wood boxes are difficult to clean and get infected. Try a wooden box that can be taken apart.
  • Make Mud! Mason bees need mud to cap their nests, so during a dry period, make a mud pie or dig a hole and fill it with water.
  • Feed your bees. Make sure you (or your neighbors) have lots of early spring blooming plants.
  • Timing is everything. Mason bees need to be set out in a sunny spot in late winter and brought into a cool place, like a garage, before the heat of the summer.
  • Hibernation is for the bees. In the fall, clean out your boxes, remove all cocoons and wash them in a gallon of water with 1 tbs. of bleach. Dry and put in a ventilated plastic container in the fridge, with a moist paper towel. Check on your bees every two weeks to make sure they aren’t too wet or too dry.

Need more information? Join our special upcoming class for Seattle Tilth members! Email emilygordon@seattletilth.org for more information.

Want to participate in Seattle Tilth’s free member events? Join or renew your membership today – or at our March Edible Plant Sale on March 14 and get a free plant.

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