DENVER — A healthy garden needs pollinators to thrive, and when many people think of pollinators, butterflies and honey bees are usually the first critters that come to mind.
There is another bee, however, that we should be working to attract and support. That bee is the mason bee. Mason bees are solitary, docile insects that start to emerge in early spring.
They are very prolific pollinators and are especially known for pollinating fruit orchards. Many species of mason bees are native to North America, but you may not notice them because they do not swarm and since they lack the yellow stripes many people associate with bees, they are sometimes mistaken for the common house fly.
Females do have stingers, but will only sting if stepped on or squished. With spring only a few weeks away, now is the time to prepare an inviting mason bee habitat.
Soon after mason bees emerge in early spring, they begin collecting pollen, breeding, and laying eggs in hollowed out cavities in trees. The female bee deposits pollen and nectar in a tube-like cavity, then lays an egg on her pollen nest, and seals the egg in with mud.
She will repeat the process until the entire cavity is filled with individually sealed off eggs. You can help the bees out by providing them with a “bee hotel,” which provides females with tubes in which to lay her eggs.
Bee hotels come in many shapes and sizes and can be purchased from your favorite garden center. Some even come as kits with certificates that you can redeem in the mail for bee cocoons to help get your population started. If you are crafty, you can create your own bee hotel.
A simple internet search will result in plans for a variety of different DIY bee hotels. The hotels should be placed in your garden in late winter or early spring. They should be placed off the ground and in a sunny, warm spot. It is helpful to tilt the hotel so the tubes are very slightly angled down, which will prevent rain or moisture from getting into the tubes.
When mason bee activity declines, usually around June, some people move their hotels into a garage or shed. This prevents predatory bugs and birds from breaking into the sealed off chambers and eating the eggs.
The eggs will develop throughout the summer and winter and can be brought back outside when temperatures reach 50 degrees the next spring. The newly hatched bees will consume the pollen and nectar in their cell and then chip away the mud to emerge into the garden.
Another way to support all types of bees is to provide them with a water source. Any water source, such as a birdbath or backyard water feature is helpful, but you can help eliminate drowning risk by providing a special bee waterer.
Simply fill a watertight dish or saucer with rocks or pebbles and fill with water. Make sure the water doesn’t completely cover the rocks, so the bees have a safe place to sit as they drink. Change the water frequently to keep it clean and mosquito free.
Mud is also important for creating an inviting mason bee habitat, since it is used to seal off their eggs. You don’t have to provide any special type of mud, just make sure you have a small patch of bare ground near your bee habitat for them to collect the mud. Keep the area damp, but not too soggy.
Finally, make sure your garden is full of early blooming, and pesticide-free flowers. Spring bulbs and flowering trees and shrubs provide food for the bees.
Mason bees, and all pollinators, are essential for our food supply and for a healthy garden environment. You can do your part in supporting these insects by providing a safe, healthy, and inviting habitat in which they can thrive.
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