This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.
Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is a pollination crisis going on in the world due to a serious decline in honey bee populations, the cause of which is still not clearly understood.
The good news is that home gardeners like you and myself can help out by encouraging native populations of mason bees (also known as blue orchard bees) into our gardens where they will happily pollinate our fruit trees and berries even when the weather is lousy. In fact, one little furry mason bee can do the work of 60 honey bees.
Here are some tips from Missy Anderson, King County Master Gardener and owner of www.rentmasonbees.com.
6 Tips for Hosting Mason Bees
- Don’t be afraid. The male has no stinger and the females are non-aggressive because there is no queen. They are all fertile. If you happen to get one caught in your sleeve, it is possible that you could be stung but it is like a mosquito bite.
- Bees need pollen. It is important to have a wide variety of plants in our gardens. Providing a rich and diverse habitat will encourage the bees to stick around.
- Bees need a dry, warm site for the nesting box. Locate the box on a south or east facing wall of your garage, house, or garden shed. The building helps reflect heat and is stable so the nest does not move.
- Bees need mud. They use the mud to build walls between the cells. This is where the name mason comes from.
- Choose nesting material. There are lots of choices: pull-apart wood blocks, cardboard with paper liners, plastic straws, drilled blocks, and homemade paper tubes.
- Have fun observing your bees. Notice the pollen on the female returning to the nest or a clean belly which means she is carrying mud. She will back in to lay an egg. A final mud plug at the front means she is moving on to another hole. Hang a nest box and watch and learn. Have fun becoming a conscientious bee farmer!
Another great source for mason bee information is Crown Bees out of Woodinville. Owner Dave Hunter has developed an impressive business of creating and selling a wide variety of mason bee, bumble bee and leaf cutter bee paraphernalia that can be purchased directly through his website or through retailers in the Puget Sound region.
Also, He and Missy Anderson both have a service where they will buy back bees from home gardeners that they then care for and redistribute the following spring.
It is important to remember that the mason bee season only lasts around two months. The bees come out of dormancy in March, mate, collect pollen and nectar and lay eggs for another four to six weeks and die. The rest of the year the eggs develop into larva and eventually form a cocoon in the nest where they stay until the following March.
If you find any of this intriguing and want to help the pollination crisis then now is the time to jump on the bandwagon and get involved. Most local garden centers have all the stuff you need to get started including live bees. For a modest investment (under $100) you too can be a part of the solution.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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