Bees are awesome. These ninja-like pollinators whiz about with a sense of single-minded purpose and direction that would put even the most ardent Uber-driver-on-a-Taylor-Swift-concert-night to shame as they flit from brightly colored flower to brightly colored flower, collecting enough pollen to make their flight patterns sag but not their spirits. It’s almost as if it’s their job to “stop and smell the roses.” These busy ladies really know how to live life! (I say ladies because most of the bees you see flying around are female–no matter what kind she is. This is the same reason it’s also totally acceptable to name a bee Bee-yonce.) The busy-ness, the never-stop attitude, the clever naming of each bee, the thoughts of uncontrollably buzzing swarms, sticky honey, or large, hairy bear invaders is likely enough to make you leave the bee-keeping to bee-keepers. But all those potential pit-falls really depend on what kind of bees you’re keeping.
All the aforementioned perils (naming aside) are specific to honeybees. And while the honeybee likely springs to mind first, North America is home to over 4,000 different bee species: from the socially complex (and non-native) honeybee to the straightforwardly named and solitary leaf-cutter bee, carpenter bee, mason bee, and bumble bee. These bees are classed as solitary because they don’t live in a big happy collective like honey bees and instead they go about their pollinating business alone, don’t make honey (and therefore don’t attract bears), are much more docile, and require much less from you.
Why Solitary Pollinators Rock
Part of what makes solitary pollinators like mason bees great at what they do is they are not spending any of their time making honey. They are only interested in the pollen (to eat themselves and to feed their offspring) and therefore they are able to visit a greater number of flowers than a honeybee. This flower promiscuity, combined with the mason bee’s ability to work at lower temperatures than most other bees, creates one of the most efficient pollinators in nature.
Become Bee-FFs with Mason Bees
Aside from being incredibly efficient pollinators, mason bees are a great type of bee to beefriend. They are small, stingless, completely uninterested in you, and their accommodation requirements make it easy for you to be their host. (While they have no money, a low-credit score, and lack of long-term fiscal responsibility due to their short, 4-6 week lifespan, they’ll more than pay for themselves by making your garden, and all the flowers and flowering trees on your block the first to bloom.).
Housing mason bees can be as easy or as involved as you’d like (and yes, I’m going to continue this accommodation analogy using a 5-star rating system to better explain how much or how little you can do to be a wonderful host. And don’t worry, the stars are only for our sake, the mason bees have specific, but easy-to-meet housing requirements and really aren’t very picky!).
Levels of Mason Bee Accommodation You Can Make: (where 1-star is the easiest and 5-stars is the most involved).
1-Star: drilling 4-to-8-inches long holes (5/16” in diameter) into a block of wood (produces a single use home—like in this example)
2-Star: inserting paper tubes into those drilled holes (allows you to reuse the home base)
3-Star– natural hollow reeds or bamboo tubes (with liners)
4-Star: Re-useable cornstarch trays (with liners)
5-Star: Re-useable wood trays (with liners) (Like this one)
Make a Home
What you need:
1- Select a Home: choose a style based on the above star-rating and gather any needed liners (choose the most suitable accommodations for your desire-level, keeping in mind this rating system is for you, not them. They’re quite content in any of those homes).
2- Choose a Location
There are a couple of things to consider when selecting the best location for your mason bee home:
- Solitary bees like the sun, so if you can face their home East, toward the sunrise, you’ll give them longer days to fly about pollinating. (South facing is also alright).
- A little bit of weather protection is a good thing: under an awning or nestled somewhere with some shelter from wind and rain will make sure your bees homes will not get destroyed but the elements.
- Not near a bird’s nest: the birds will appreciate the buffet style offering, the bees will not.
- Near a good source of flowering plants (food), water (hydration), and clay (for their home building).
3- Get the Bees
You have a couple options to welcome Mason bees into your garden: you can start from scratch by just putting the home out in a desirable location and hoping some find it, or you can pre-populate your home. (It may seem odd but you can buy mason bees online or probably find them from a local bee keeper, garden store, or farmer.)
4- Put the Bees Out
Once the Spring weather becomes warm enough for them to hatch from their cocoons and fly (keeping in mind bees are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to heat them in order to keep busy) put your gathered cocoons out near or on top of your bee house. Once the temperature is conducive to them flying they’ll hatch and seek out food and water. (If you stick around and watch them hatch you can tell the males and females apart because the males will have little white tufts on their heads). Depending on where you live, and what type of Mason bees you have, you can put them out between March and June.
Hold on. I’m Going to Open up a Box of Bees???
I can see how mail-ordering a box of bees would seem unnerving, but be assured you will not open the box to an angry swarm of bees headed straight for your face. This is because of two reasons: firstly, mason bees are very mild-mannered and stingless; and secondly they overwinter in cocoon state and when they hatch they’re like you in the morning without your coffee: groggy and slow. Hopefully your box remains cool enough and none of the bees hatch (as they wouldn’t fare too well in a dark, foodless, waterless box), and if you get them before the weather is hospitable enough for your bees you can place the box in your fridge to keep them in their cocooned state. When they do hatch the mason bees will be so docile, groggy, and single-minded all they will be looking for is some sun to bathe in, some food to eat, and some water to drink.
How Many Mason Bee Cocoons Should I Get?
Count the number of holes in your chosen accommodation. Each bee can fill more than one hole in her life, so if you have 60 holes aim for about 40 female bees. Now here’s the tricky part: you need more females than males if you want little mason bee cocoons to put out the following spring (*note: bees typically dislike the whole ‘birds and bees’ analogy due to the fact that birds will actually just eat them so we’ll avoid all that.) but the males will not be around after a couple days. They will provide their *services* and then their lives will end unceremoniously, leaving all the work to the women. Most mason bee providers will quote their numbers as males and females combined: if they say you get 40 mason bee cocoons you’ll likely receive 20 males and 20 females, and you can tell as they female cocoons are slightly larger in size. So check with them to make sure you’re getting the right number for your home.
Ok I have Mason Bees, What’s Going to Happen Now?
Now, with your cocoons in hand you have a couple choices: if the weather is nice (spring temperatures), with consistent sun exposure and temperatures not dipping down too low, you can put your bee cocoons out near the home so when they hatch they’ll not even have to scout around to find a great place to live. If the weather isn’t great yet (cold, rainy, snowy) you can keep the cocoons in your fridge until the time if right. (Don’t worry, it won’t harm them. The fridge is the perfect temperature to keep them in their hibernating state while you wait for warmer weather).
The bees will emerge from their cocoons, sunbathe near where they hatched, and then, once they’re warmed enough by the sun they’ll get right down to finding a suitable mate (*again, no birds and bees references please), pollinating, collecting supplies, and building a home. Mason bees grow up so quick!
Now we get back to what you have to do now: well, nothing! Once you’ve put the cocoons out in the nice weather you’re done until late fall. I suggest going out to observe the mason bees coming and going (they’ll happily fly around you so don’t worry about being in the way) and watching them waddle in and our go the holes as they build their homes. They’ll be busy collecting pollen (food), mud (to build the chambers in their homes), and water to worry about you so get your nose right in close. If you listen really closely you can hear the high-pitched noise of their wings flapping inside their holes!
Your hotel will be the busiest in the spring and taper off in early summer. These solitary pollinators are the first-responders to the seasons’ first blossoms and therefore are responsible for all the wonderful colors of spring. When late-fall comes you can either leave the bees in their cocoons until next spring when they hatch, take the home down and put it in a protected area away from weather that is too cold, or you can take the homes apart, clean the cocoons, and over-winter them in your fridge.
Whether it’s hosting Bee-yonce, Obee-wan-Kanobee, or Phoebe, opening your own bee hotel this seasons is the best way to remember to stop and smell the roses: you’ll have so many of them around you they’ll be impossible to ignore!