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What’s All the Buzz About?

Mason bees make great neighbors––and how you can help add them to your area



A mason bee at work on her "home." She'll lay an egg, put in some pollen for late-night snacks, seal off the chamber with mud, and repeat the process until the reed is filled.

Photo by Eileen Kumpf

“There’s one bad thing about summer,” said my four-year-old daughter gloomily. “Bees again.”

That was years ago, back in the days honeybees were so abundant we could worry about stepping on them barefoot. Back in the days every clover blossom drooped with the weight of the bees crawling over them; when the only drones were male bees who, according to science, didn’t pull their weight in the hive; back when a beekeeping friend of mine ran a clear plastic pipe from outside into a hive in his kitchen so he could see his bees up close, to the non-appreciation of his family. 

Since the end of the 20th century, the worldwide honey-bee population has plummeted so low that barefoot kids now try to avoid bees for the bees’ sake instead of their own. Pesticides, climate change, and a mysterious bee virus appear to be the main cause of the decline. As with so many global environmental disasters, the main way ordinary people can help is by wringing their hands and screaming. Ordinary people can also raise mason bees.

Mason bees aren’t as picturesque as honeybees. They don’t make honey. They’re non-communal and lay their eggs in holes instead of interesting, educational hives. Also, they have housefly-looking wings. On the other hand, mason bees don’t sting. According to one website, they’re “very friendly and gregarious.” If you wanted to carry one around, you could. (I’m not saying you should.) More important, they’re wonderful pollinators.

Twenty mason bee cocoons are in my refrigerator right now. I ordered them online from CrownBees.com, receiving what look like olive pits wrapped in burlap. Eight are female, and 12 male (“nature’s natural ratio,” according to the website). I’d love to slice one open with an Exact-O knife as “research,” but I don’t want to waste any of the females. 

When the weather is consistently warm, I’ll take the cocoons outside and park myself alongside, eagerly waiting to see them hatch. This will take way longer than I’d expected, so I’ll go inside to get some iced coffee and forget about the cocoons. By the time I remember them a few days later, the bees will have hatched and flown away, and I can turn my attention to making a couple of mason bee houses where they—or other bees—can lay their eggs.

Many websites give directions for making your own bee houses. Most of these also provide hysterically obsessive details. To improve your chances, diaper each larva! Harvest the cocoons with platinum bee-harvesting tweezers! I don’t want to scare you off, so I’ll let you do your own research. You can find good instructions at crownbees.com, the honeybeeconservancy.com, or masonbeecentral.com. It’s up to you to choose how involved to get. 

Here’s what I did last year: I bought the special egg-laying tubes, packed them into a coffee can, and stashed the can in a blueberry bush. Four mason bees set up house in it, which I thought was decent for a first time. But instead of harvesting the cocoons and overwintering them in my refrigerator, I decided that Mother Nature would do a better job. I left the can outside, and at some point it fell out of the bush and got covered with snow. Mother Nature didn’t pick up the job where I’d left off, which is why I bought my own cocoons a few months ago.

But this time I’m going to follow all the directions and build a super-perfect bee house. It will have a roof, a parlor, and a TV room. Mason bees will line up to get inside. And next spring, when you realize that the planet has been saved, you’ll know whom to thank.

 

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September 2018

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