Mason Bees

Mason Bee house

I am sometimes amazed by the smallest things (I think I just set myself up for a ’small minds’ comment).  How life spins its intricate web around us and most of the time we are unaware.  Nature has a way of taking even the simplest thing and making it a wondrous dance but if we don’t slow down enough to notice it we are missing out on something special.

I’m always trying to open my children’s eyes to what is around them, even in the smallest form.  I point out the arduous journey of a tiny insect making it’s way through the blades of grass.  We ponder its destination.  Does it know where it’s going?  I mean, that’s a long expanse of lawn for a little bug to traverse just for the heck of it.  I show them the ladybug larvae, the drops of water that bead on the Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle), the way one male quail stands guard while the others forage.

One of the amazing things Nature is busy orchestrating in April is the emergence of the native mason bee.  When the weather starts warming and the buds start opening on the fruit trees you might notice a little black bee busy buzzing back and forth.  This fuzzy little thing, actually looking more like a fly rather than a bee, is helping pollinate your trees while it’s packing away food for its future young.

The mason bee is a solitary bee, with no hive or colony, and spends the winter in a cocoon.  When daytime temperatures warm to about 14 degrees the adult bee chews its way out of the cocoon.  Usually the first to emerge are the males.  You can actually tell them apart by the white facial hair on the males.  They hang about the front of the nest and wait for the females (even in bee world females take longer to get ready).  When the females chew their way out the males pounce, they do their thing then the women go to work.  It’s a bit unfair but that’s the way it goes in mason bee world.

When the kids were really young I ‘hatched’ some mason bees in a glass vase with a mesh over the top so my kids could see.  I skirted around the question of “what are they doing?” when the males pounced by saying ‘oh, look, the bees are playing.”  Seven and three years of age is a bit early to start the birds and the bees discussion, I thought.  After moving the hatched bees to the nesting box outside the males took up residence on either side of the opening, standing sentry, while the females started their trips to the trees.

The females collect the pollen and nectar to form a lump that will feed the larvae later on.  She places it in the nest (in my case a nesting tube in a bee house) and lays an egg on top.  She then packs mud and plant material around it and starts the process all over again until she lays all her eggs and dies.  In the summer the eggs hatch into larvae, eat until fully grown then rest.  The larva spins a cocoon, changes into a pupa and then into a bee by September but stays in its protective cocoon until spring where it starts the process all over again.

These little wonders can help increase your fruit production and are available at the garden centre now along with nesting houses, tubes and a wonderful book with more detail than I have room for here on how to raise mason bees.  They are one of those quiet wonders that we should all stop and pay attention to.  They truly are fascinating.

Shirley Eppler

March 2008