Mason Bees 101
By Rob Sproule
“The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. But the bee”¦gathers its materials from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”
– Leonardo DaVinci
The Buzz about the Bee:
You’ll want to start by clearing your head of all you know about bees. Our perceptions of colony living, maybe stinging, black and yellow buzzing are out the window here. At first glance, the metallic blue-black masons look like big flies and you may have even swatted a few of them. But if you grow anything edible, they’re the best critters you could have in your yard.
The plight of honeybees, driven by their catastrophic losses from colony collapse disorder, has catapulted the issue of pollination into the spotlight. But while the focus has largely been on the highly visible honeybee, their less sexy, native cousins are starting to be recognized.
Of the 4000-ish North American bee species, masons are the easiest to take care of and the most beneficial. While a honeybee colony requires a sizeable investment of money and time, you can just hang a couple mason bee houses around the yard and the neighbours will only know the difference when they see how many more sour cherries they’re getting.
Why make the investment? Because having pollinators in your yard will give you more food to eat. Investing in a mason bee house and some cocoons pays off quickly when you start to see the larger yields from your garden.
Do They Sting?:
There are no “workers” in solitary bee life. There are females and males. Male masons have no stinger. Females do, but are so gentle that you literally have to grab one and squeeze it for it to sting you, unlike their waspy cousins, who chase you around the yard.
They’re solitary creatures, and earn their name because they make mud homes in cracks or holes in wood/stone (or a nest if you provide it). You won’t have to worry about walking by their nest; they won’t jump out and attack you, they’ll be too busy working inside.
How Much Do They Pollinate?:
When I first heard about masons, I thought, “What’s the big deal? How do a few solitary bees compare to a honeybee colony of thousands?”
Well, here’s the big deal:
“¢ Before honey bees arrived from Europe, native bees, like masons, did 100% of North American pollination. And they did just fine.
“¢ Honeybees are very careful how they pollinate, leading to a far less efficient pollination percentage than masons.
“¢ Mason bees, on the other hand, aren’t careful in the least. They tromp across blossoms and pollinate everything in their path, making them crazy efficient.
Bottom line? 1 mason bee can pollinate as much as 100 honeybees. So having a couple dozen masons in your yard will give you the equivalent of a fair sized honey bee colony.
Masons bees spend their lives scrounging for decent nesting sites. Your best bet to keeping them near your garden is to provide the best nesting site possible. Add some cocoons to get the first generation rolling and they’ll take it from there.
You can buy prefab houses or make one yourself. It can require as little as a drill and some firewood:
“¢ Drill holes, a few inches deep, but not all the way through, with a 5/16″ bit
“¢ Drill as many holes as you like: each hole = 1 mother and larvae
“¢ Position the nest in a quiet spot in the yard, facing the morning sun
“¢ Anchor it so they won’t be wiped out by strong winds or knocking against the tree
“¢ They’ll emerge with the warmth of early spring to start their awesomeness
Do all of this, and with the warmth of spring, you’ll see these little pollinating powerhouses emerge to douse your garden with their awesomeness and make your garden its most successful by far.