As the weather warms and gardeners around the country are ready to sow spring seeds for plants and flowers, it comes to no surprise that some gardening enthusiasts still want to take their gardening to the next level. From trying to raise more finicky plants to expand the size of their garden flowers, gardeners who wish to challenge themselves and improve their garden should consider investing in a garden pollinator for this spring.
A pollinator is an essential insect that assists in pollinating your garden flowers. If you own any fruit trees or an orchard, pollinators are essential for the production of fruit—every year about 1.8 million honey bees actively pollinate America’s orchards and farms.
You may think that a homeowner-turned-gardener doesn’t necessarily need millions of honeybees, much less even 10 honeybees. The question is, are they even worth the effort and beneficial to your plants and flowers? Luckily for amateur gardeners, there is a bee that doesn’t sting, isn’t high maintenance, and is just as effective at pollinating in comparison to your average honeybee. One species of bee, now becoming more popular with even beginning gardeners, are mortar bees, also called mason bees.
NatureZedge understands that several doubts may still run through your mind. Won’t the bees sting? Is it easy to house mason bees? Is it even worth pollinating with mason bees for flowers? How effective are bees when it comes to pollinating?
In this guide, we cover the most basic questions about bee pollination and help you consider the pros as well as the cons of raising one of America’s most effective pollinators in nature.
Where are they found in the US?
- North America is home to over 140 different mason bee species and for the most part, they’re found throughout the United States. Compared to honeybees, which were first imported on hives by the Europeans to the US, this bee species is native to the US. The most common type is called Osmia lignaria. Osmia lignaria has two common names: the “orchard mason bee” and the “blue mason bee”. This bee is most commonly found in the north end of the west coast, but regardless of the region you’re from, mason bees are considered some of the best native, efficient pollinators among American bees.
How Can You Distinguish It From Other Bees?
- Compared to your typical honeybee, they are smaller in size. Color-wise, they have a metallic blue or green sheen to their shell—some folks may go as far as to describe them as blue-black. In very rare cases, you may also find “red mason bees”.
Another way to distinguish between the two is how the bee is holding pollen. Honeybees carry pollen on their hind legs while the mason bee collects pollen on their underbelly’s soft hairs. In addition to their appearance, they also behave differently. They are considered non-social and tend to build their own nest, typically in nooks and crannies such as insect holes as well as former woodpecker nests. However, even though they are considered non-social, they do tend to build their nests in groups but do not socialize with each other daily. Compared to honeybees, they do not depend on a hive and do not have a social hierarchy to abide by.
If there is one similar trait that this species has in comparison to honeybees, it’s the stinger. Like honeybees, male mason bees don’t have stingers while the female mason bees do.
What is the typical size?
- Though the size of the mason bee is determined by the hole it was reared in, the average size is between 3/8 to 5/8 inches. Addition male bees are recorded to be smaller than their female equivalents.
Are They Dangerous?
- While females do have stingers, they are generally more gentle temperament-wise. The only specific situations a female would sting is if she is being cornered or squeezed—both rare occurrences unless a witless gardener antagonizes the bees. One reason why they don’t sting that much compared to their honeybee counterparts is because of their non-social nature as well as a lack of a social hierarchy.
With no need to socialize or to work together for projects such as building a new hive, they are more concerned with trying to build and maintain their nest as well as obtaining as much pollen as possible. This gives little time or reason for the bee to sting, and why they have developed a mild nature. In addition to mason bees being less aggressive, the pain and poison of the sting are less compared to that of a honeybee. For those who are allergic to bees, have lower pain tolerance, or have children who roam the garden, mason bees are a perfective alternative to the more temperamental honeybee for a safer gardening experience.
How to Attract Mason Bees to My House?
- In the wild, mason bees typically build their nest in whatever nook or cranny they can find, and preferably, near other mason bees for mating convenience. These nests are typically layered with mud with slots available for eggs and nectar/pollen as sustenance for the baby. If you want a perfect way to introduce them into your garden, you need to provide a similar type of housing such as a Mason Bee House.
How Does a Mason Bee House Work?
- A mason bee house emulates optimal and natural nesting conditions, typically consisting of holes of varying widths. Factory-made bee houses are usually a series of holes enclosed in a wooden box, however, some gardeners choose to make their own as a fun DIY project. The most premium houses include bamboo tubes, cardboard tubes of wood, pull apart wooden blocks, and lake reeds. Keep in mind a couple of things: the size of the hole is important—too big and parasitic wasps can prey on your bees, too small and you won’t be able to disinfect or clean the nest. Second, because they are all-natural and don’t contain toxic glues and stains they will only last a couple of seasons at best so you will need to replace them. Some types of housing, such as drilled wooden blocks, must be remade every year as they are not viable for cleaning. Like any other type of animal, mason bees also have a variety of diseases, parasites, and mites that can afflict damage on them. No worries they are affordable and with some effort can be built DIY.
When Should You Hang it? and How?
- You should consider hanging it up in the spring as mason bees emerge from their cocoons in the early spring. One thing special about their life cycle is their hibernation period. While mason bees lay their eggs in the late spring and the eggs hatch in a few days, the baby larvae stay inside their cocoons until next year’s spring.
- When setting up your Mason Bee house, we suggest setting it up at eye level. This way, it is easy to inspect the house as well as to look into it. For most bee houses, we also suggest setting them up off the ground, except for loose nesting materials such as lake reeds. If you have loose nesting materials, it is better to set them somewhere on the ground within your garden; studies have shown that female mason bees use sight markers to find their nests and setting loose nesting materials will help them locate their nests faster and more conveniently.
Another thing to consider is the direction of the nest when the sun rises. Morning sun tends to give bees a spurt of extra energy at the beginning of the day, so pointing your bee house east will be a great boon to the productivity of your efficient mason bees.
Make sure to survey the surroundings of your bee house for predators. Especially if you have a birdbath, birdhouse, bird feeder, or any type of additional ornaments to attract birds, you might want to place them elsewhere. Another precaution you can take is adding bird wire to the mason bee house. Bird wire allows enough space for the bees to access their home with ease while protecting them and their nests but is narrow enough to deter their natural feathery predators.
Care and Maintenance
There are two important things to consider when taking care of a mason bee house:
- Providing the resources necessary for your mason bees to prosper.
- Housecleaning in the autumn.
For the first step, it’s essential to provide not only ample amounts of pollen-heavy plants but also soft, moist soil. Since mason bees build their nests with mud, the latter is especially important. If your garden has dry or sandy soil, you may have to introduce soil with more clay. Another project you can do is to make “mud balls” for the bees, by rolling deposits of rich and wet soil into balls to use for their nests.
Note: Mason bees will move on from an area if there is not enough mud to meet their nesting needs, so be sure to pay attention to your bee’s nests and your garden’s soil in the long run.
Secondly, to ensure that your bees do not get wiped out by mites or parasitic wasps, professional mason beekeepers recommend doing housecleaning in the autumn when the cocooned bees are still dormant. Housekeeping consists of opening up your mason bee house, taking out the cocoons, and then disinfecting, cleaning, and storing the house until springtime to use. With the cocoons, you want to check them for parasitic wasps and wash them.
How Do You Clean Them?
Simply rinse the cocoons in a colander in a mild bleach solution. (1 teaspoon of bleach to 4 quarts of water) Once you’ve finished putting them in a mild bleach solution, leave the cocoons on a paper towel to dry. If yellow or orange stains appear on the towels, then that indicates the cocoons have mites, and the cocoons should be thoroughly washed until such stains don’t appear again.
Can Masonry Bees Damage Walls?
Considering how effective mason bees are when it comes to pollinating, it’s no surprise that they are also extremely proactive when it comes to building their nests. If your home is built out of brick or out of a material that cracks, there is a chance a mason bee may be able to make its home in one of your wall’s holes. On top of this, mason bees will even build nests in the wooden materials of a home, such as window frames and roofs. Even if Masonry Bees don’t build their nests directly into your home’s walls, they can still cause damage by building their nests around homes.
When the bee builds a nest near your home, it ultimately creates a channel for elements such as rainwater to run through. With these channels, the infrastructure of your home can be weakened over time without detection and proper treatment.
A more severe problem that may occur with mason bees and your home is if a large number of them begin to build their nests within your home’s walls. While one mason bee is not likely to cause a lot of damage in the short run, a huge number of them will most definitely inconvenience you and affect your home’s foundation. When it comes to raising adult bees, providing the proper resources for them to maintain their nests is important, but also controlling their population and consistently checking on your home are necessary as well.
Mason bees may only operate for only eight weeks of the year, typically spring to summer, but one mason bee is said to do the work of 100 honeybees. Now that you know more about mason bees, we hope this guide helped you in deciding whether or not to add these super-pollinators to your home, and how to adequately care for them. The relationship between gardener and mason bees is truly symbiotic—if you care for them, they will help pollinate your plants!