Mason Bees: Pollination Powerhouses

April 18, 2014 | By | 4 Replies More

mason beesDo you know who’s responsible for providing 90% of the world’s nutrition? No, it’s not the Winn-Dixie or Super Walmart. It’s honeybees! Many healthful vegetables, fruits, and tree nuts – 70 out of the top 100 consumer food crops – rely on honeybees to turn flowers into food. A colony of these hardworking rockstar pollinators can visit more that 300 million flowers each day!

But, what’s happening to the honeybees is not only heartbreaking, it’s scary. Honeybees are experiencing a serious decline in population known as colony collapse disorder or CCD. While scientists, big agriculture, and politicians argue about who’s to blame, it’s clear that the root cause of it all is humans.

A combination of pesticides, habitat destruction, and climate change are forcing the death of honeybees. While other countries, particularly in Europe, have taken measures and made investments to reverse the decline, the US drags its feet. Personally, I am not confident that enough will be done quickly enough to save the honeybees.

Being a vegetable gardener, bees play a vital role in my harvest. Some gardeners actually hand pollinate some of their crops. However, I prefer natural pollinators do the work for me while I sip champagne on the deck with The Prez. I plant many bee-friendly plants in my perennial garden. These plants often attract butterflies, wasps, and hummingbirds too, which are good pollinators in their own right.

This year, I’m trying  to attract another super pollinator called the mason bee. Mason bees are native to North America, are smaller than honeybees, and are sometimes mistaken for flies. Their name comes from the way they build their nests, using mud like a bricklayer to create partitions to protect their eggs. With the decline in honeybee populations, there has been increased interest in mason bees and what they can do to save our nutritious food.

I am not in favor of using the mason bee as a replacement pollinator while we sit by complacently and allow honeybees to go extinct. Besides being just the wrong thing to do, this approach is dangerous since the factors that are harming our honeybees are harming us as well. We’ve become a society that is fine with putting a figurative band-aid on a problem without solving the root cause. I think honeybee decline is a symptom of larger environmental issues that we must all face.

Mason bees can visit twice as many flowers in a day than honeybees and effectively pollinate up to 95% of them compared to 5% for honeybees.

Honeybees are highly social creatures and have a fascinating division of labor within complex colonies. By contrast, mason bees are solitary, and they don’t work day after day for their queen. This solitary nature could make them less susceptible to mites and viruses that threaten honeybees. Mason bees work solely to gather pollen and nectar as a food source for their young, and they do not produce honey. There’s no need to fear mason bees since they are not aggressive.

How to get mason bees to visit your garden

mason bees

My mason bee house

Most of the same plants that attract other pollinators are suitable for mason bees, too. Act in spring to make nectar and pollen available, and you can enjoy the benefits of these gentle bees all season. Some top plants to include are heather, crocuses, blueberries, catmint, lavender, sunflower, aster, coneflowers, yarrow, goldenrod, and sedum. Plant sweet alyssum that will spread to create a living mulch underneath your taller vegetables like eggplant and peppers.

Make it even easier for mason bees to visit your yard by hanging a mason bee house. You can purchase this pretty, ready-to-go mason bee house like I did from Gardener’s Supply or you can make your own. These houses provide hollow cylinders for mason bees to build a nest. Hang the house in a sunny location at eye level, and make sure it’s angled slightly downward so rain can run out of the tubes.

Finally, these little masons need mud to seal up the chambers that contain their eggs. Make a “mud hole” by digging a shallow basin in your yard near your bee house. Line the hole with heavy duty plastic tarp, fill it with dirt and keep it muddy all season. This works better if your soil has some clay content since it packs better, and sandy soils may not be as effective.

Be patient – it can take more than one season to attract mason bees. I hope to see some in my yard soon!

 

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Category: General, Green Living

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