Mason Bees: How to Raise and Attract Mason Bees

The number of bees is on a steady decline worldwide today, so much so that in China farmers are resorting to hand-pollination due to the near-absence of bees. In the US too the collapse of colonies has been gradually increasing each year. The reason for this is primarily attributed to the rising use of the neonicotinoids group of pesticides. This article focuses on mason bees, closely related to the honey bees, and their amazing benefits and strengths.




What are mason bees?

Do they make honey?

These bees do not produce honey, this being the biggest distinction from its most beloved relative, the European honey bee. So why are they such a big deal? Well, this is because they are one of the best pollinators out there, and should be your natural choice in case you have an orchard, a farm or a garden. For example, just 250-300 female mason bees can pollinate one whole acre of cherries or apples. Concentrating on mason bees also takes the load off the already stressed honey bees.

Where and How Do Mason Bees Live?

These bees lay eggs in existing tunnels, and mud is a must as far as their breeding ground is concerned. They are solitary bees, meaning they lack the highly sophisticated social mechanism of the honeybee. The females are their own queens, each fully functioning adult capable of producing and looking after her own eggs.

In fact, these bees are called ‘mason bees’ precisely because after emerging from hibernation in the winter months, the females gather mud in their large jaws using which they build walls at the back of the tunnel they have chosen to nest. This whole egg laying process is immensely complicated for the mason bee.

After house hunting is over, the female enters into her famous pollen collection mode. She heaps the pollen and nectar at the end of the tunnel, and this becomes the first source of nutrition for the hatching larvae. Then she goes back and lays an egg at the top of this mound of food. She clinches the deal by using more mud to build another wall to seal the whole thing off in its own chamber.

The female continues doing this till the whole tunnel fills up with eggs each tucked up cozily in its own chamber. Finally, she seals off the whole tunnel with some more mud. Then you know what she does? She dies.




How to raise and attract mason bees

Lifespan Of The Mason Bees

The female mason bee remains active for around 4 weeks, during which time she builds her nest, lays eggs and then dies. On an average, the total lifespan of a mason bee is a year, from one spring to the next.

Read hereBees life span

Major Types Of Mason Bees To Know About

Out of the 200 species across the world on an average, North America alone houses around 150 types of mason bees, with many being native to specific geographical regions. This means unless you are particular about the kind of bees you want to have in your garden, you may have a few of them already roaming about, making it very easy for you to set up a house for them. The orchard mason bee or the blue orchard bee Osmia Lignaria is the most common species in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to their black bodies with the typical dark blue sheen, they look a lot like the common houseflies.

The red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) is an endangered mason bee found in lowland England and Wales. Its pollination skills on an average happen to be 120-200 times more than that of the honey bee. And like most of its relatives in the family, it is a non-aggressive type.

What are the benefits of keeping mason bees?

Mason bees are among the best pollinators around, especially during springtime.

The female of the species carries the pollen on the dry underside of the hairy abdomen, meaning that it is much more easily scraped off wherever she rests as compared to how happens for honey bees, who transport the pollen by making them wet and sticking them to their legs. The Mason Bee also happens to gather pollen and nectar simultaneously across a wide area unlike the honey bee that focuses on only one source. This also makes them very efficient cross-pollinators.

They are not scary as they look. In fact, they are so gentle that they will sting only if they are stepped on, which is quite justified, if you think about it. Mason bees are solitary, which means that all the females are queens, instead of having a single queen bee in a colony as in the case of honey bees. This makes the mason bee female extremely busy to spend too much thought and energy into looking after other things, meaning you can get inches from her without getting stung.

You can never get enough of the advantages of a thriving ecosystem in your orchard or your garden and with their pollination skills, they would only make your place more lively, more colourful and ultimately, more profitable.

They are very inexpensive, both in terms of getting hold of, and raising and caring for them. All the necessary accessories, like the bees themselves, nesting material and housing come at a large number of affordable prices for you to choose from, and due to the placid nature of the bees, there is no additional investment required for things like protective gear. Initially, you need to spend just fifteen minutes to set them up at the location of your choice. Even when they become fully active and mature, you won’t need more than two hours each day. As a bonus, your numbers would annually double and you can take part in programs like the Bee BuyBack program to benefit from them.




Tips to keep in mind while raising mason bees:

Do not be scared

While mason bees do sting now and then, it would mostly be like a mosquito bite, and does not need serious first aid. They are an unaggressive species by nature. All the females are fertile, meaning they are too busy setting their lives right, and the males do not have a grand queen to protect, meaning they have no stingers.

Retain the pollen supply

Setting up a colony in your garden is not enough. Remember that once the pollen runs out, your bees would move out to another area. Mason bees happen to be aggressive pollinators working over large areas, so be very judicious in planning things out. Check out the most common pollen-producing plants that you may use.

Observation

Observing these creatures obviously facilitates better management, but they also happen to be awesome to just watch. Involving your kids in the process is worth your effort. Some wonderful things you can notice are:

  • The pollen on the female as she returns. A clean belly means that she is carrying mud along with her.
  • The female goes off in circles as it puts in the final mud plug on the tunnel, one of the last acts in its tiny life.
  • The presence of antennae is what distinguishes mason bees from the common house fly.
  • The males have funny tufts of white hair on their heads.

Guarding Mason Bees from Predators

Considering that the beings that you would be protecting are tiny and they fly, this is going to be a bit difficult, but it is absolutely important that you plan the location and manage it keeping this aspect in mind. Adult mason bees are favored by a large number of predators like crows, starlings, robins and woodpeckers who swoop down upon them as they emerge from their nests early in the morning to bask in the sunlight. The best and the most humane way to keep your bees safe is to store the nest in enclosed spaces like your garage or shed once the active period ends. You can even use chicken wire in case you are using paper nests with lots of squirrels around who may be breaking down the box to gulp down the contents.

Doing Things At The Proper Time

You need to be very careful about the yearly schedule. Spring is the right time to bring in mason bees to your farm. The nesting units need to be protected from the rain and the wind and mould, and this can be done by tilting the cavities a little downwards. It is important to make the nesting units face south as the bees need temperature of as much as 80 degrees Fahrenheit to make their wings fully functional. Ensure that the units are secure though, as the babies cannot crawl back in on their own. As the females lay the most number of eggs in the beginning of spring, the nesting material should be set out by mid-March. However, keep in mind that setting them out too early means mostly male progeny.

Harvesting

While these bees happen to be very active and are prolific breeders, these factors also contribute to making them very vulnerable to mites, pests and chalkbrood fungus. So like every other creature, they need a clean and sanitized habitation, which can be done every October or when the fall sets in. There is absolutely no need to panic once the population gets out of hand, as you can get complete rental kits, cleaning offers for cocoons and storing bees during the winter months. These kits would be handed over during the spring.

How to Attract Mason Bees?

Mason bees are very easy to purchase; you will be able to find local community farms and commercial farms offering mason bees for sale, apart from websites where you can purchase them. At the same time, you can also attract them to your farm by creating the right habitat for them. Remember that the proper habitat is necessary in any situation, as even if you just purchase them, they won’t survive in the absence of the right environment. You need to keep the following things in mind while setting up a good shelter for your mason bees:

Mud :

Mason bees require a good source of mud. This is because the females require mud to lay their eggs and you can even make mud pies with moist (but not very soft) soil. Having an open ground near the nest is important, however as the babies are too weak when they emerge, you should not keep the mud pie directly beneath the nest.

Use natural food sources:

Steer clear of chemicals and schedule and place your hatchings in such a way as to ensure that the bees get the best out of the springtime glory of nature.




Having the proper nesting site:

Wood boring insects and hollow twigs often provide a natural site for the females to lay their eggs. However, to ensure better nesting, you can make nests of your own by drilling holes on wooden blocks. It is better to always go for holes that are 6 inches deep as the bees control the sex of their eggs. Mason bees lay more male eggs than female at the front of the tunnel, while the female ones are laid deeper inside to ensure protection from predators and woodpecker beaks.  Ensuring a large number of females would automatically ensure a bigger bee population the next year.

Protecting your nests:

This is very important, as you don’t want your bees to freeze. In the fall, your nest boxes would be full of eggs. Take them down and place them in a dark and unheated enclosed space like a garage or a shed and return them as cocoons to your garden in early spring just before the fruits and flowers blossom. You will see bees start moving in and out once the temperatures touch 55 degrees.

So you can see how beneficial these tiny creatures are for your orchard, and for the environment at large. Their extreme resilience and their capacity for hard work make them among the best soldiers of nature to ensure the survival of not one but many different species.

Just a little bit of prior research and a willingness to participate in the growing discussion and exchange programs based on these bees is enough to make the situation win-win for all the parties involved, including the bees themselves. So go and get some eggs for yourself this spring and let them spread their wings in your garden if you haven’t already.




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