mason-bee-in-flight

A mason bee makes her way into a bamboo tube to lay an egg.

Bees have been in the news lately because of the important role they play in pollinating crops. Even President Obama has gotten involved by launching a new strategy to help honeybees and other pollinators.

Although I’d like to do more to help pollinators, I’m not ready to put a hive in my city backyard. Instead, I bought mason bees. These blue-black bees don’t make honey, but they are prolific pollinators that rarely sting. And, like many good things in life, they come in the mail. (To learn more, read About Mason Bees.)

mason-bees-in-tubes

When the bees arrive, they are still dormant inside the paper tubes.

I ordered my bees in March from Ruhl Bee Supply. The bees come in thin cardboard tubes in a dormant state and need to be refrigerated until they can be put outside to hatch. I kept them in the door shelf — next to the pickles. Because spring arrived late this year in Vermont, the dormant bees remained in the refrigerator for a month.

mason-bee-tubes-in-attic

When it’s time to let the bees hatch, the tubes are placed in the “attic”, just above the block of nesting cells.

By the first week of May, the plum and apple trees were about ready to bloom, so I put the tubes in the “attic” of the bee house sold by Ruhl Bee Supply. It’s crucial to have plenty of flowering plants in the area around the house. Otherwise, the bees won’t be able to find food to survive.

mud-capped-holes-rbs

Mason bees are so-named because of the “mortar” caps they put on the egg-filled holes. The caps are made with mud from the surrounding area.

Within a day or two, I could see that the mud caps on the tubes had been pushed away and the bees were already at work. Success!

Although honeybees are the most famous of pollinators, some would argue that mason bees are more effective. Honeybees have special pouches for carrying pollen, so most of the pollination that happens is from granules of pollen that get caught on the honeybee’s body hairs. The mason bee stores pollen in scopa — specialized hairs that cover her abdomen. This means there’s a lot of spillage — and a lot of pollination.

“It is kind of like stuffing rice grains into a hairbrush,” writes Brian L. Griffin in his book, The Orchard Mason Bee. “She is dragging her scopa over every blossom she visits, and she visits plenty.”

mud-capped-holes-bamboo

Egg-laying females have already capped  several of the holes in the Mason Bee House

I hung our Mason Bee House in the same location as the bee house from Ruhl Bee Supply, so the bees would have two choices for nesting. Within a few days, I could see that the bees had filled several of the tubes, which were capped with mud. Both houses were used.

For the next 30 days or so, the females will continue laying eggs in the cells and cap the ends with mud. Sadly, the bees die after all that work. Meanwhile, the eggs inside the tubes hatch, eat and pupate for the winter. In spring, the cycle begins again.

David Grist

David Grist is hoping to have even more mason bees in 2016.