There is a lot of press these days regarding the health and decline of honeybees in America. Honeybees were introduced to our country by Europeans only 4oo years ago. The Mason bee (Osmia family) however, is a bee native to North America, and has been around for millions of years. Here at the Garden center, we have enjoyed learning about and observing these humble and hard-working bees this summer.
Mason bees are also known as Orchard bees, and do a great job of pollinating early spring fruit trees, blueberries, raspberries and a variety of ornamentals. Unlike honeybees, they don’t produce honey or beeswax. They are also non-aggressive and won’t sting unless stepped on. In fact, the males don’t even have stingers! They are solitary creatures, and get their name from building their nests using mortar-like applications of mud to seal their eggs until next spring.
The photo you see is one week’s worth of work by a solitary female using a Mason bee nesting kit that we offer at the Garden Center. The female bee seeks out hollow tube-like structures to leave her eggs until next spring. She will use already existing areas and won’t create any damage doing so. Hollow reeds, woody plants, holes in dead trees and even abandoned snail shells will do! We found these nesting kits to offer the public and hung one about 6 feet high under the eaves ( is this the right word?) of the store. We placed oleander trees around it for a little privacy and a source of nearby nectar.
In the course of a week, we watched her visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar, known as a ‘provision mass’ or ‘food store pellet’. It is usually enough food for a 10 day supply for the larva/larvae once they hatch. She lays down the collected food pellet, leaves an egg on top of it, and flies away to find mud to bring back and seal the structure. Each tube consists of several ‘partitions’ of eggs that are walled-off with the mud. Females are placed in the back and males in the front, so when spring comes the males can chew their way out and then let the females emerge for mating. It has been fascinating to watch these creatures go about their solitary business with bumble bees, wasps and monarchs co-exisiting with them while they lay eggs for next spring. “Busy as a bee” has certainly been the case here in the courtyard and we look forward to watching them come out of dormancy next spring.