Friday, 7 March 2014

Pollinator Possibilities: Mason Bees

With all of the doom and gloom surrounding honey bees and the threat to our food system, I was surprised and delighted to learn about a North American native bee, mason bees.  There are dedicated people who help and nurture mason bees year after year. In fact, I learned about them this year during a biweekly gardening session with a local chef and gardening advocate at my school. I was inspired by what I learned to attempt to nurture mason bees in my own backyard this year.

So why mason bees? What is so special about them?

Mason bees are solitary, do not live in hives, and have no worker bees or queen bees.  As such they have a very unique life cycle. In March and April, when temperatures begin to warm up and the trees begin to flower, the males begin to emerge from their cocoons. They wait nearby until the females emerge, then mate and die. The females then spend the rest of their time collecting pollen and nectar, which they use to make little pollen beds for the eggs they lay. They will create their nests in narrow holes or tubes. Once they have laid an egg, they block the tube with mud (hence “mason” bees) and prepare another pollen bed for another egg, then create another mud wall. The first eggs laid in a hole or tube are female, and the eggs laid closer to the opening of the hole are male. Isn’t that amazing that they can choose whether to lay a male or female egg? When the female has laid all her eggs she too dies, at the end of spring or early summer.

Through the summer the eggs hatch into larvae, which eat the pollen and nectar beds. The larvae develop into pupae, which in turn spin a cocoon to develop into bees. Over the winter the bees hiberate inside their cocoons, waiting until the temperature warms up enough for them to emerge, thereby starting the whole cycle again.

The first thing that sold me on mason bees is that they do not sting.  In fact, you may have seen a mason bee without realizing it as they appear more like a fly than a bee. 

Mason bee cocoons: the two larger ones are female.

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