Our fragile pollinator system needs help. Honeybees are on the decline and we should encourage all other species that love pollen to increase and help shoulder the burden of producing crops for humans. The loss of habitat, insecticide use and other mitigating factors have taken a toll on the insects we depend on to help our food grow.
Honeybees require work and attention
Some gardeners are learning to keep honeybees. However, maintaining a happy and healthy hive requires education, commitment and quite a bit of work. It isn't for the casual gardener. There are also gardeners with small properties that can't handle a hive of honeybees. Instead of giving up on being a pollinator destination, there are insects that don't require much at all and they contribute a large percentage of labor in the pollinator world.
Mason bees are peaceful pollinators
Mason bees belong to several species of the genus Osima. They are solitary bees that do not have a hive community and each female is responsible for creating her own nest or structure to hold her eggs. Unlike carpenter bees, mason bees do not bore holes themselves, they use existing cavities and holes. She uses mud to seal each cavity, just like a block layer would use concrete or grout to seal cracks. That's how they earned the name, mason bees. They collect pollen from many sources and this is sealed in each compartment along with a single egg. The pollen is food for her young, when the eggs hatch. Collecting this pollen ensures that she visits many different plants and assists with the fertilization of the vegetable or fruit embryos. These are very busy bees and make a huge difference in how much produce we get. They are a necessary part of the food cycle.
Mason bees are solitary and only live one year
Mason bees live a pretty simple life. They are laid as eggs by the female in the summer. The larvae hatch and consume the pollen all through the rest of the season, they spin a cocoon in the autumn and some even emerge and stay dormant all through the winter in their little mud apartments. When spring comes, the males break the mud wall in their cavity and emerge first, since they were the last eggs laid. They wait around for the females to emerge, mate and die. The next generation of females start the process all over again. Mason bees do not overwinter like a hive of honeybees, so the beekeeper doesn't have to worry about the viability of the hive, there's a new generation each year.
Mason bees are easy to attract
These bees are peaceful, non-aggressive and easy to attract. Creating a nesting area is simple, or if you want, there are even commercial nest houses you can buy. They range from tiny little tube holders at very modest costs, to mason bee palaces that orchard owners have stacked at the ends of their fields. A few cardboard tubes tied together, is just as attractive to a lady mason bee as a fancy bee house. The bees like their houses placed up against a flat surface and make sure they are protected from the wind. Give the houses a south, or southwest exposure so that the sun shines on it in the winter. This will keep the newly hatched bees warm. Once the bees hatch, you'll need to place new tubes for the next generation, the females won't use an old nest, however they will be more than happy to return to the spot of their birth if provided with fresh nesting material. Disposing of the old tubes each year keeps down disease. You should also provide a wet spot in your garden where the bees can collect the mud they need to seal the tubes.
A mason bee can visit over 1,000 flowers in a day, so their impact is pretty significant. They like ornamentals just as much as they like edibles, so they are good for your whole garden. You can even purchase tubes full of cocoons and have them delivered to your property in late winter, if you don't think you have any bees. They will emerge in the spring and start pollinating everything in sight. Then, lay their eggs in the bee tubes you provide and you'll have the start of your mason bee farm. Even the smallest properties can benefit from mason bees. There are over 3,000 species world-wide, so there's sure to be some native to your region and climate.
We should all encourage pollinators
Encouraging pollinators is something every gardener should do. It is easy to provide habitat and a food source for a number of insects, however mason bees are one of the simplest to keep. Pollinators are directly responsible for 80% of the flower-producing plants reproduction capabilities. This affects humans and wildlife alike. Imagine no berries or fruits for wildlife, no squash, beans or cucumbers in the summer. No apples, pears or plums. No citrus in the winter or grapes for wine. The lack of pollinators paints a pretty bleak picture and we should all do our part to encourage and protect the ones that we have left.