Power to the Pollinators!
Place habitats for one of the most powerful yet friendly pollinators of the insect world, and watch as it makes your garden, the local ecology and your community hum with enduring abundance, learning opportunities, rich diversity and timeless resilience.
The Mighty Mason Bee
Unlike European honeybees that live in colonies with one queen and thousands of infertile, specialized individuals, Mason Bees (family Megachilidae, genus Osmia, Blue Orchard and Hornfaced the best known species) are sociable with one another but solitary. All females are fertile and lay eggs as part of their normal life cycle.
Females nest in tubular cavities like hollow reeds, twigs or holes in wood abandoned by other insects and build 5-10 cells within their nests separated by walls of clay or plant material chewed into a paste. In each cell the female lays a single egg on top of a bed of pollen and nectar that she collects from local spring and summer flowers. The bed feeds the growing bee as it turns into a larva, spins a cocoon around itself and transforms into an adult that hibernates through fall and winter. Like its parents the full-grown bee will emerge in late spring or early summer as nearby fruit and berry plants are flowering and oozing with nectar.
The mother will lay female eggs at the back of the nest – where they’re more protected from predators and weather – and male eggs at the front. Males, usually 2 or more times numerous than females, chew their way out of the nest first, hang out nearby, mate with emerging females and die. The fertilized females then seek out nests of their own, possibly inspecting several cavities before settling in. The female will then visit nearby flowers numerous times to build up each cell’s bed of pollen and nectar, back into the nest, lay the egg, wall off the cell and do the same for the next cell and the next until she’s filled the whole cavity. Then she may seek out another cavity.
Ranges for the Orchard Mason Bee (Yellow), Blueberry Bee (Blue) and Spanish Hornfaced Bee (Gray). Click on the map to see an interactive global map from Discover Life
A PhD in the Fine Art of Pollination
The female mason bee can visit 1,000 flowers in a day, 20 times what a honeybee worker will do. And while the honeybee packs pollen into cavities on her hind legs, the mason bee uses ventral scopae, a basket of hairs on the backside of her abdomen. The scopae give mason bees a bluish- or greenish-black iridescence like houseflies and hold more pollen, but they also brush up against flowers’ pollen-laden stamens, which means that mason bees pass a lot more pollen between flowers. All of this adds up to a 100 times more pollination. Although they don’t produce wax or honey, mason bees make up for it in gardens bursting with fruits, veggies, berries and seeds. Commercial sources report that two or three females can pollinate an entire orchard apple tree.
A Kid and Pet-Friendly Ecology Teacher
Maintaining elegant mason bee habitats can be a simple, yet powerful way for people of all ages to intimately connect with the intelligence of nature and discover the thrivability and opportunity that await us in working with the natural world. Mason bees don’t sting unless they’re squashed or squeezed so they’re kid and pet friendly and don’t require protective clothing or training to work with. Since they’re sociable but solitary, there’s no need to coax colonies into complex forms. A well-designed and well-built habitat with ample nearby pollen sources will naturally attract mason bees, can allow intimate year-round observation of their lifecycle, and especially for teachers, parents and community garden programs be a powerful real-world teaching tool.
A Little Powerhouse for Building Enduring and Thriving Ecologies: Better Living Through Diversity
Imagine two groups of children – the first packed into a classroom in a school with 500 other kids, the second homeschooled in ones, twos and threes. Which group will get the flu more often? The answer is obvious and the same goes for bees. Honeybees, always touching one another in complex colonies with only one fertile female lose out a lot faster when disease comes around. When the queen gets it, the whole colony is in jeopardy. There’s no question that honeybees’ advanced social behavior has been a key to their success on the planet and has made it possible for them to support entire ecologies.
Nevertheless mason bees’ sociable but solitary nature and universal fertility gives them a critical edge against Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has lately decimated honeybee populations. When they augment honeybees as pollinators in the temperate and cooler climates they love, their different disposition may provide the ecological redundancy to allow our deep heritage of flowering plants to thrive and continue to feed us while honeybees recuperate.
Nature learned long ago that ecosystems with built in redundancies are a lot more resilient, adaptable and enduring. By hosting mason bees (many species of which are native to North America including the common Blue Orchard Mason Bee), we too can activate this wisdom, ensure the wealth of our own gardens and ensure the wealth of biological and human communities unbounded by our property lines.
Get Your Habitats
All of our habitats are created according to the Vertecology standard – exquisite union of elegance, minimal form and material, and ecological and design function. There are a few options for getting your habitats:
Purchase one of our designs to the right and we will ship it to you from our Etsy store. All our mason bee habitats are hand-made on the west coast of the USA using sustainable materials wherever possible. Prices start at $15, plus shipping and handling and include detailed information for placing and caring for habitats and bees.
Or Build Them!
We’ll show you how! If you’re a maker, a do-it-yourselfer, we make it easy for you to build beautiful, elegant habitats to enhance your home, community garden, school or neighborhood. Select the designs you like on the sidebar on this page and download their full-color “Maker Pack” patterns and instructions for $5 each. Our Maker Packs are printer friendly and include complete cut lists, hole patterns and the same detailed information for placing and caring for your habitats that comes included with our physical shipments.
Or Build Them With the Kids!
The best option of all, we think! Join the kids in intimately connecting with the language and intelligence of nature while building one of our paperboard designs – all you need is one of our Kids’ Maker Packs. Just download the ones you like for $5 each, print them out on a black & white or color 8.5” x 11” printer. Then get a good xacto-knife, a good pair-of scissors, a 12” ruler, some non-toxic glue, some sturdy paperboard and construction paper and set a few hours aside for a good time! The Kid’s Maker Packs come with the same detailed information for placing and caring for your habitats that comes included with our physical shipments and our other Maker Packs.
And Keep Coming Back
We’re always adding new designs. We’re Vertecology. We just can’t help ourselves.
Place Your Habitats to Attract Mason Bees
- Place your Habitats in time for mason bees to find them. In late winter/early spring when daytime temperatures start to climb, place your habitats.
- Maximize morning sun, minimize afternoon sun. Face habitat nest holes southeast but also so they’re shaded from wind and mid-day sun (if it has a roof and/or wind-guards you still want to face it southeast).
- Place your habitats near the garden you want to pollinate. Mason bees’ flight-range is about 300 ft (100 meters) and they’ll only use your habitats if you have lots of flowering pollen sources growing nearby.
- Keep the habitats dry and protected from wind. Especially the cavities where the bees are growing. Mold and fungus can kill the growing bees. There are many ways to keep habitats dry and protected from wind. Slanted overhangs and cavities gently sloped toward their entrances are incorporated into some solid and tray habitat designs. Solid, tray and exposed-tube habitat designs without these features can still be well placed but must be placed under house overhangs in wind sheltered spots.
- Provide height and stability. Place your habitats at least 3 feet off the ground and make sure they’re secured so they won’t sway in wind or get knocked around.
- Place your habitats where you’ll see them and enjoy them every day. Mason bees are a favorite treat for robins and other small birds. If you’re using an exposed tube design, wasps can break into the tubes and eat the larvae. If the habitat is left up in fall, yellow jackets may take up residence. Be aware of all these threats – if you see your habitats regularly and enjoy seeing them because they’re of a beautiful design, you’ll be able and inclined to intervene.
- Go Organic. Pesticides and herbicides will wreak havoc on the good guys too, including your mason bees.
- Provide clay mud nearby during nesting season for extra credit. This will help the mother bees with material to seal nest cells.
If you follow these instructions and live within the normal ecological range of mason bees, you should have no problem attracting local, native varieties to your habitats, but you can also purchase bees. If you plan to purchase your bees, please buy bees that are native/naturalized to your climate and region. Doing otherwise may get you poor pollination and cause ecological side effects like bringing new mites, parasites or diseases into your area.
Take care of your habitats and bees year-round
Mason bees’ active pollination season lasts about 4-6 weeks starting in late winter or early spring, depending upon the local climate. After their active season, the adults die. In summer, larvae grow inside their cells, make cocoons, and become new adults resting in the cells. With the onset of fall, the adults become dormant as they go into hibernation. These bees require some cold temperatures before spring in order to break their dormancy. Here are some tips for caring for the habitats and the bees year-round.
- Bring habitats indoors when the females are done nesting. Once the habitats are filled and mudded over, gently take them into a cold, dry place like an unheated garage. This will keep them safe, ensure that autumn-nesting yellow jackets don’t take up residence and keep the mason bees cold so they can sustain and eventually break hibernation.
- If Possible, Harvest and Observe the Cocoons in Winter. (This is only possible if you are using tray or exposed tube designs or are using reeds/paper tube liners with solid designs). If you can do so, gently harvest the cocoons (adult bees are hibernating inside) and continue to store them together in your cold, dry place that you’ll hopefully remember when temperatures start to climb. Then clean your habitats according to the instructions. You can even delay the bees’ emergence if needed by refrigeration – keep the temperature between 36 & 45 degrees Fahrenheit and use a paper towel or cotton ball in the fridge to maintain proper humidity.
- Clean Your Harvested Habitats If you’re using tray designs, disinfect your trays with a stiff brush and peroxide solution, rinse them out with fresh water and let them dry. If you’re using an exposed tube designs, clean the tubes with a pipe cleaner and solution, or replace the tubes, whichever is appropriate. If you are using reeds or paper liners in solid designs, replace the reeds or liners and use a pipe cleaner with peroxide to clean out the holes. If you’re using solid designs with no inside lining, wait until the bees have all emerged, then clean out the blocks with pipe cleaner and peroxide solution and sterilize them by baking them for an hour at 300 degrees. If you’re using solid designs with no inside lining, it might be best to have more clean habitats ready to place outside with your already inhabited nests so you don’t have to wait for all the bees to emerge before you can have a clean home waiting for them and the bees don’t have to wait for your cleaning operation either.
- Place your habitats and cocoons outside in time for spring. Set your inhabited and newly clean habitats in their spring outdoor locations and if you extracted the cocoons, place some of them nearby (Keep some inside for a little while longer to reduce the deadly effect of a late frost.). If you take good care of your bees year round, provide ample nesting space and pollen sources, your population can increase about five times per year until your local area is saturated.
And keep on learning
- The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee by Brian Griffin
- Mason Bees for the Backyard Gardener by Sherian A. Wright
- The Mason-Bees by Jean-Henri Fabre
- Pollination with Mason Bees: A Gardener and Naturalist’s Guide to Managing Mason Bees for Fruit Production by Margriet Dogterom