There is growing excitement from home gardeners and orchardists around the country about a bug. Yes, a bug. More specifically, it is a bee. A mason bee. It is an important natural pollinator particularly in light of the worldwide problem of declining honeybee populations.
Why discuss a bee during the dead of winter? First, it is time to plan for the spring activities of this hardworking insect. Second, we enthusiasts wish to help spread the word about this very beneficial insect.
I first became aware of it nearly nine years ago when I noticed all these giant-looking flies that were swarming around the shake roof that covered some outbuildings. I quickly began to learn about them and that started my fascination with the mason bee.
It is a solitary bee that nests in holes in the ground, in trees, under shake roofs and in nesting holes created by humans. It rarely stings, but can if its life is threatened; it is not aggressive and is a better pollinator than the honeybee. Six mason bees can effectively pollinate one apple tree that would require 360 honey bees.
Adults begin to hatch from their cocoons in mid-March in the Northwest when temperatures reach the mid-50s. The bees complete their life cycle in about six weeks. Their activities coincide with the bloom of most of our ornamental and fruit-bearing trees.
The bees require sources of pollen and mud. They deposit their eggs on a glob of pollen and seal off each one in a chamber with a mud plug. Lack of clayey-mud is one of the top reasons for poor success.
I believe the greatest attribute is the good feeling we get from helping Mother Nature pollinate our fruit trees with very little time and effort. They are also terrific for involving children in a gardening project and to learn about beneficial insects.
The bees are simple for gardeners to “raise” by providing nesting materials. These include specially-designed nesting blocks with multiple holes, cardboard and paper tubes or homemade paper tubes.
I began by drilling holes in 4 by 4-inch fir blocks. While these worked to attract the bees, they are not recommended because over time they house various predators, diseases and fungi that feast on the larvae and slowly become death traps for the bees.
I have converted to the materials noted above. They allow home gardeners to harvest the cocoons in the fall and clean out the pests. They can then be safely stored in the refrigerator for the winter for release the following spring.
Dennis Tompkins is an ISA certified arborist, ISA qualified tree risk assessor and Master Gardener from the Bonney Lake-Sumner area. Contact him at 253 863-7469 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: evergreen-arborist.com.