Mason Bees are gentle, solitary pollinators that are native to most parts of North America. Between their gentle nature and ultra-efficient pollinating abilities, they make perfect garden guests for people with fruit trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens.
Read on to learn how attract mason bees to your yard and get 10% off your mason bee starter kit!
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The Magic of Mason Bees
Mason Bees are native pollinators found across North America and, to put it lightly, they are a home gardener’s best friend — especially if you have veggies or fruit trees that need pollinating.
- They are gentle by nature. Males don’t even have stingers and females only sting if you try to hold hands with them.
- They are amazingly efficient pollinators. Just two or three female mason bees can pollinate an entire full-grown apple tree. Mason bees have a 95% pollination rate, whereas honeybees have a 5% pollination rate.
- They are solitary. Unlike honeybees, which form large complex colonies, Mason Bees don’t build hives or insist on having 29,999 roommates.
- They are easy to care for. Hang up a Mason Bee house and plant some flowers — that’s about it. No gloves, suits, masks, are smoke-blowing-devices.
- They are adorable. Just look at the little guy or gal below! Plus, part of what makes Mason Bees great pollinators is how clumsy they are — they literally go crashing around from flower to flower making an ecologically beneficial mess.
Mason Bees provide all the pollinating benefits of honeybees without the danger, mess, noise, and effort. Perfect for a home gardener like me who wants a good crop and an eco-friendly garden!
Making a Mason Bee-Friendly Yard
As mentioned above, Mason Bees are very easy to attract and care for. Here are three simple steps:
1. Provide Food
Their favorite food seems to be the nectar and pollen from fruit tree flowers. However, they will snack on any flower that’s blooming during their 6-8 week lifespan, which is usually from March to May, depending on the climate and species.
Proven plants and trees include blueberries, dogwood, cherries, plums, willows and poplars. It’s also good to mix in some native plants and annual flowers. Mason Bees also benefit from a source of clean water. Simply fill a shallow dish with water and half-submerged rocks to give them a place to land and drink!
Spring Mason Bees tend to emerge when temperatures regularly reach 50+ degrees. In warmer climates, that can be as early as mid-February. In colder climates, that can be as late as mid-April. They travel only 200 to 300 feet for nectar, so make sure there are food sources nearby!
2. Provide Shelter
After mating, female Mason Bees spend the next 6-8 weeks frantically spawning the next generation. They lay eggs in long hollow tubes and seal them in with food and mud (hence the name “Mason” as in Masonry).
The baby bees grow, make cocoons, and hang out in the tubes through fall and winter, and emerge the following spring ready to repeat the cycle!
After some trial and error, I designed what I think is the most beginner-friendly Mason Bee house on the market (pictured below).
There are tons of Mason Bee house designs on the market, but many do more harm than good. The holes need to be 5/16″ in diameter and 6″ deep for the female bees to lay eggs. Even more important, the tubes need to be removable so you can clean them between seasons. Otherwise, the poor bees may fall victim to mites, illnesses and other predators.
I’ve had my design inspected by mason bee experts at my local nursery, and they’ve given it the green light. (Now I’m hoping they will stock some on their shelves!)
Using untreated pine and Western Red Cedar (native woods), my Mason Bee houses have the perfect size and depth holes for female bees to successfully nest in. It hangs on one screw using a keyhole in the back, so you can drill it right onto a tree. And the trays are easily removable to clean and reuse between seasons.
Cleaning and care instructions:
- Store the filled trays. When spring Mason Bees have nested and sealed the trays (usually by late May), remove the entire tray set and store in a shed or garage to protect from predators. Then, insert a second set of trays to attract summer Mason Bees and other native pollinators!
- Wash the cocoons. In October-December, the bees will be safely in their cocoons, and it’s okay to open up the trays. Gently wash the cocoons by floating them in tepid water, allowing the excess mud and debris to sink. Dry them in a sieve, then store the clean and dry cocoons in a cardboard box wrapped in paper towels. Place the box/towels inside a plastic container or jar with air holes and store in a fridge, cold garage, or outside until spring.
- Wash and dry the trays. After removing the cocoons, wash the trays with soapy water and scrub with a toothbrush. Wash with a 5% bleach solution to kill bacteria and fungi. Once they’re dry, they are ready to use again!
- Release the cocoons! When day time temperatures are consistently 50+ degrees and branches begin to bud and bloom, bring the box of cocoons out of the fridge and punch a 5/15″ to 3/8″ hole in it — about the size of a pencil. Bring the box outside and place in a protected, shady place near the Mason Bee House. (Hint: It’s not a bad idea to tape the box to underside of the house or under the roof overhang.)
I’m calling my model the “Air Bee n Bee” and it is available in the Emeraldology Shop. If you decide to order one, take pleasure in the knowledge that I will soon be covered in sweat and sawdust.
3. Keep a chemical-free yard
Food and shelter is all Mason Bees really need to survive, pollinate, and breed. Anything else is overkill… literally.
That’s why I’m stressing the importance of keeping a chemical-free yard. If you don’t believe me, see how common pesticides cut wild bee reproduction by 89%.
My rule of thumb is to avoid anything with a Scotts or Miracle-Gro label, which are both chemically-laden offspring of Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). In my time gardening and doing lawncare, I’ve found my veggies can be just as big, grass just as green, and flowers just as bright using organic methods instead of chemical ones.
Why Bother with Mason Bees?
In addition to considering Mason Bees as the perfect garden guest, it’s important to recognize the work that largely goes unnoticed.
Photosynthesis is the original carbon capture technology, which plants and trees provide on a non-stop basis. For free. All we have to do is not burn them, cut them down, or douse them with chemicals. While some plants and trees are pollinated by wind, about 80% of flowering plants rely on animals to pollinate and reproduce. Animal pollinators are also behind 1 of every 3 bites of food you eat.
So, to say we owe pollinators, like the Mason Bee, a debt of gratitude is an understatement. Especially since honeybees tend to get all the credit because their throw up tastes good on cornbread, even though in reality they are non-native and kind of terrible at pollinating.
Luckily, there are 4,000 native bee species in the United States that are silently pollinating the plants that give us food, breathable air, and fresh water. To me, it seems only fair that we repay them by trying our best not to destroy them.
The best things we can do, according to the NRCS, are:
- Plant pollinator-friendly plants, preferably a mix of early spring bloomers and native plants
- Eliminate pesticide use
- Accept some plant damage, as it provides habitat
- Provide clean water, a shallow dish with half-submerged rocks works great
- Leave dead tree trunks for more habitat
- Support land conservation