Home & Garden

As honeybees die off, nurture mason bees

Backyard beekeeping has exploded in popularity. A big part of the reason is due to the movement for fresh, local food.

For homegrown crops, we depend on honeybees to pollinate the flowers on vegetable and fruit plants. Lately though, there’s been a mysterious loss of honeybees each year.

Researchers are learning how to tap into the power of other pollinators to fill the pollination gap. Solitary bees – specifically mason bees – may just be the solution. Although they don’t make honey or beeswax, they’re more efficient in collecting pollen than honeybees and with almost none of the drawbacks that many first-time beekeepers experience. They are very gentle. They will not sting unless they perceive extreme danger.

Mason bees are active spring through summer and are usually found in temperate regions.

Unlike the social honeybees that live in elaborately built hives with up to 60,000 of their siblings, the solitary mason bee works its entire life alone, while doing so in a single enclosure, usually no wider than a common drinking straw. Simple holes in wood and hollow reeds are common nesting sites. They’re named for their characteristic of making compartments of mud to house each egg in a bed of pollen.

Setting up a mason bee habitat at home is simple. All they need is a collection of hollow tubes that you can make yourself using paper wrapped around pencils. Or simply drill holes into a block of wood. Then, place the wood or tubes in a sheltered housing to keep them dry. A simple open-faced milk or juice carton mounted against an east or south-facing wall will work.

Provide a mud source. Mason bees require claylike mud to seal their chambers. Research shows the vertical surface of a muddy area offers the best selection for bees to find the right consistency. At home, you can create such a mud source with cheap kitty litter. Mix the contents with water until it becomes a claylike consistency. Place it in an area near your mason bee habitat and slice down into the mud with a shovel or spade to create the vertical surface for the bees to mine their mud.

Mason bee cocoons can also be purchased from sources such as Crown Bees.