Many people don’t yet know about the industrious little mason bee, although his popularity has grown a lot since our honey bee has been having problems. The Mason bee is much smaller than the honey bee but it pollinates about 75% more efficiently. Visually, it looks more like a common housefly but it definitely isn’t, so try to look and make sure it’s actually a fly before you swat.
It’s important that we help the Mason bees and provide habitats for them whenever possible.
Most everyone knows about the honey bee and how critically important its pollination duties are to the food supply we rely on.
It’s also been well publicized that our honey bee is in serious trouble due to viruses and wide spread pesticide use. They’re dying off at an alarming rate. This is why we need to help the Mason bee survive and thrive at every opportunity.
If we all take small scale action in our own backyards, we can make a real difference.
About the Mason Bee
There are over 300 different species of them in the Northern Hemisphere. Due to their size and docile nature they often go unnoticed or mistaken for flies.
They’re always in the garden finding natural places to live, but with our help the bees will do much better and we can play a big part in helping them increase their population numbers. If you hang up a mason bee house customized just for them then you’ll give these important little creatures the boost they need to thrive and reproduce every year.
The reward for you and your plants is, of course, that your garden gets well pollinated. You’ll have many beautiful flowers and a bountiful harvest of fruit and vegetables with this little guy helping out.
The price options and design options are numerous when buying a commercially made bee homes.
You can also make one of your own out of a few small chunks of wood nailed together and paper tubes. There are basic construction plans available online, but it doesn’t need to be much more than a small square frame.
One option is to buy a package of natural small bamboo sticks (not the coloured ones), they are usually very cheap. These are actually tubes that when you cut them to 6″ lengths they become perfect for the bees. See the image below for an example.
If you prefer you can purchase specially made paper tubes each year for them to lay their eggs in. Replacing them annually is required to keep them healthy and disease free.
This image shows a Mason bee and bug house together which serves dual purpose of creating a home for the bees and other beneficial insects as well such as Ladybugs.
Bee house protection
Whether you buy a commercial mason bee house or make one yourself it’s very important to put a large piece of wire mesh in a dome type shape over the entire house. Secure the mesh to the tree or fence completely with a stapler so that there are no gaps for birds or mice to get in.
Woodpeckers love to eat mason bee cocoons and will happily sit on the edge of the house and peck out your little bee nursery in no time at all. Applying the mesh correctly and completely will stop the birds’ access in their tracks.
The mesh should have small 1/4″ square openings. This is to allow the bees to come and go freely but no larger predators can get at them.
How to hang the house
Hang the house filled with the empty tubes about 4′ off the ground on a tree or the side of your house in the early spring. Choose the side of your house that gets the warmest at the earliest point in the day.
Once you hang the house, you likely won’t need to buy cocoons because the bees that are already around will begin to use these tubes on their own to lay eggs for the next year.
To increase the Mason Bee population in your area you can buy additional packages of cocoons in the early spring containing new bees that are dormant.
Mason bees and all beneficial insects need water too. It helps them stay hydrated and able to fly the long distances required to find flowers. However, mason bees also drown easily. Sitting a bird bath in the garden may seem like a good solution but it’s actually very dangerous for the little bees.
The best way to offer water to your mason bees is to set out a glass dish or pie plate filled with glass marbles. Then fill the dish with clean water. The bees can stand on the marbles and take a drink of water safely. Wash out the dish and marbles often so the water stays crystal clean without garden debris or bird poop.
If you ever see a honey bee or bumble bee just sitting on the ground or on a plant not moving…but you can tell that it’s alive, it’s very possible that the bee is thirsty or tired, he’s most likely exhausted. If you offer him some water he’ll likely take it and then fly away and recover nicely.
Life cycle and some facts
The mason bee is a solitary bee and does not live in a hive. It doesn’t make wax or honey either and they are very docile.
The males cannot sting at all and the females will only sting if they are threatened. This makes the mason bee quite safe to be around and to have in the garden doing their job, right along side the kids and family.
- The females do most of the work
- The males die after mating in the very early spring
- They don’t carve out their own places to lay eggs
- They use holes bored by other creatures that have since been abandoned
This is why they are so quickly attracted to the paper tubes we put out for them.
- The female spends the summer pollinating, collecting food and laying eggs
- The eggs that are destined to be female get laid first and the male eggs second toward the front of the tube
- Then she packs the tube with mud between the two cocoons and on the outside as well, that’s how it stays for the winter
- The males emerge first in spring and hang around close to the house until the females emerge
- They mate right away and then the males die
The female carries on with the work of pollinating and laying next years eggs. Then the cycle repeats again.
Mason Bee Protection
The 1/4″ wire mesh is required to keep out birds and other large creatures that love to eat mason bee babies. Once the spring mating and egg laying season is over there is no traffic to and from the nest. Most of the tubes should be mudded over by now. This happens by May and then the female adults die by the end of June.
Now, the little mason bee nursery needs another layer of protection.
It’s at this time that they face the Parasitic Wasp, whom also love to eat the mason bee babies. They can fly right through and past the wire mesh to eat the babies. So, at this time it’s important to take down the wire mesh and apply a fine fabric mesh to the bee house. The options are to buy a commercially made bag or make one yourself using raw organza fabric.
Leave this fabric on for the summer months so the babies are protected until they mature. Once the summer is gone and the winter arrives, it’s time to take down the house and put it in the garage for the winter. Before winter storage it’s important to remove any dead tubes or those that look sick.
Store the cocoons at 32°F – 41°F (0°C-5°C). If you don’t have a garage or if it generally remains too warm then store them in the refrigerator.
I encourage you to help the mason bee by setting up a home for them in your garden.
Leave me a comment, let me know if you need additional guidance and also tell me about your experiences with Mason Bees if you already have them.