Mason bees fly to the rescue of failing orchards
By Ben Coxworth
February 7, 2010
Many readers would already be familiar with Colony Collapse Disorder and the mysterious worldwide disappearance of honeybees. Everything from mites to viruses to electromagnetic radiation are suspected as its cause and it is potentially disastrous for crops that rely on the bees for pollination. Well, on a small scale at least, help is on the way - some fruit growers in North America are now turning to the indigenous mason bee as an orchard-pollinator. Not only are mason bees not affected by CCD, but they're better at pollinating than honeybees, you need less of them, and they have a more laidback personality, meaning less of those nasty stings.
Mason bees occur naturally in the North American woodlands, where they are also known as blue orchard or Osmia bees. Because they're fast fliers, and remain active in poor weather, they do a better job at pollination than the introduced European honeybees. Instead of living in colonies with assigned roles, each mason bee lives an independent existence, and all the females lay eggs. That said, they are very gregarious by nature, and like to live cheek-by-jowl with one another. This characteristic makes it possible to sort of domesticate them, as a great number of bees will gladly cohabitate in a relatively small beehouse.
Yes, a beehouse. Because they don't form societies, or produce wax, mason bees don't live in hives. Instead, each bee finds an already-existent tubular hole (Such as a wormhole in a tree) and moves in. A beehouse can be pretty much anything that provides a bunch of these holes, such as a block of wood with holes drilled into it, or a collection of little paper tubes taped together. If you want something that's easy to clean and reuse, you can buy premade beehouses from companies such as Mason Bee Homes. These companies will also sell you mason bee cocoons, if you don't want to wait for the neighborhood bees to stumble across your beehouse on their own.
Females fill their tubular homes up with eggs during the summer, then cap the opening over with mud to protect them over the winter. Come spring, the young bees emerge, although many of them will head off to see the world. Unfortunately, this means it will take some time to establish a large local population, and is one of the reasons mason bees aren't more commonly used. Still, as long as Colony Collapse Disorder remains unchecked, it's nice to know they're out there.
All photos courtesy Gordon Cyr