Mason Bees: No Honey, No Keeping, Just Pollinators

The sun is out, birds are singing, bees are trying to have sex with them — as is my understanding.

– Bart Simpson

Kevin’s Uncle Fred kept bees (selling the results of their labor), and seemingly enjoyed it. But when he was ready to hand off the hives, he had a heck of a time finding anyone willing to take them on! As Eddie Izzard pointed out, you have to really want to keep bees. If you have a vague urge to keep bees but you aren’t so keen on wearing nets or getting stung, have I got a bee for you:

Red Mason Bee (image via bbe-tech.com)

Red Mason Bee (image via bbe-tech.com)

Meet the mason bee (a/k/a orchard bee), a bee that you don’t keep so much as facilitate. These solitary bees are not aggressive because they aren’t protecting a whole community or a queen. The males don’t even have stingers. They are undiscriminating pollinators, going to any flower they fancy, so you don’t have to cultivate specific plants. They make separate homes and then just hang out. They’re the Jeff Lebowski of the insect kingdom.

Mason bees like a specific kind of nesting environment, so last year, I made a mason bee house. Basically, all you have to do is drill a series of holes into a piece of wood. Make the holes three to four inches deep, using a 5/16 inch bit (or a few different drill sizes about that gauge). Provide a little cover so they can get out of the rain when coming and going, and that’s it.

Bee House 1

Bee House 1

I made this one out of pallet scraps, and made the porch roof from a vinyl tile. Super-easy to put together, but the bees haven’t liked it all that much. They prefer smooth interior surfaces, and my drill left the insides a little ragged. Before I could get around to cleaning up my handiwork, though, Ben and his girlfriend gave me a bee house:

Bee House 2

Bee House 2

Come on, how awesome is that? It’s got a fancy-pants roof, various suite sizes, and super-smooth walls. Also, it’s sweet-looking hanging in the garden.

I put out both bee houses this spring, and the bees have spoken:

mason bee nesting

Bee House 2 is the Shangri-la of bee accommodation. See how there’s mud packed into the lower right tube? That’s how the females seal in their eggs for the next generation of chilled-out bees. This one is fairly close to the front, which means that there’s a whole series of eggs just in this one tube. Many of the tubes have received this treatment, meaning that a bunch of bees think it’s The Place to Be a Bee (or a Bee-to-Be).

The extent of my effort here? I hung the thing up on a sunny wall in a garden. This winter, I’ll need to do a little clean-up on the house for next season and store the cocoons, but that’s it. Mason bees are where it’s at for the lazy keeper!

Mason bees are spring pollinators, but it’s not too early to plan for next year. Read more about mason/orchard bees here, here and here. Enjoy this fun little bug!

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