Start your own colony of pollinators
Honey bees aren’t the only bees out there that can pollinate our plants. There are native bees that work just as hard and with a little encouragement will set up shop in your garden.
The orchard mason bee is a little smaller than a honey bee with a shiny dark blue color. It has two sets of wings held folded on its back. Unlike the honey bee, it lives a solitary life looking for small holes and narrow spaces in wooden buildings, fences and old logs and lumber to lay its eggs. Because it doesn’t have a colony to protect, the mason bee rarely becomes aggressive enough to sting. This makes it a perfect resident for the backyard.
The mason bee is visible only in the spring. Females emerge from their holes in early spring and immediately mate. They then seek out holes about one fourth to three eighths of an inch wide and several inches deep. Once a nest is located, they begin collecting nectar and pollen from early blooming plants especially fruit trees. The pollen and nectar are placed in the bottom of the hole and an egg is laid on them. The bee then walls off that egg with mud and lays another on top of it. When the hole is full, the female caps it with a thick plug of mud to protect it from predators. This continues until about June when the female dies. The eggs pupate and then go dormant in the holes until the following spring.
Mason bees are actually more efficient pollinators than honey bees. Honey bees very neatly collect pollen and place it in special sacs on their legs with a little left on its body for pollination. Mason bees on the other hand collect pollen on special hairs on their body. The pollen is loosely held on the hairs and easily rubs off on the next flower. Being smaller than a honey bee also allows them to get into smaller flowers. Favorite flowers include lily of the valley shrub (Pieris japonica) and apple and cherry trees.
To attract mason bees to your yard, place blocks of fir or pine drilled with quarter to three eighths diameter holes about 3 to 6 inches deep on a south facing wall in the early spring. If the bees are around they will move in. You can also buy tubes of dormant bees and nesting tubes to start your colony. The nesting tubes are a heavy cardboard lined with a paper straw that is removed the following spring after the bees emerge. The tubes can then be packed into large cans, soda bottles or any other water proof container and set out. Provide a rain cover over the nesting site. Now sit back and enjoy nature at work.
Master Gardener Pat Munts can be reached by e-mail at pat@ inlandnwgardening.com.