Keeping Mason Bees as Pets

With ten years of experience and research, I’m delighted with keeping Mason bees because they’re fun garden pets who need a safe home. They’re interesting to watch buzzing around feeding themselves and at the same time they’re reducing my food bills. They’re pets that never interfere with travel or holidays!

Mason bees or orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are family friendly garden pets. They’re easy to care for and safe. Children can get close to watch pollinating and nesting bees with no risk of anaphylactic shock. Research shows Mason bees are good for the biodiversity of our environment. As one of our most effective bee pollinators they are essential in cool spring weather and can more than double your garden crops.

After studying bee keeping at university, I kept honey bees because I thought I’d have lots of easy honey. I was wrong; honey bees are a lot of heavy work, prone to disease and STING!

The Difference between Mason Bees and Honey Bees

Pooh Bear would say “Yes!” to honey and I used to agree. Honey bees are interesting social bees but each one has a stinger and it’s their job to attack and sting anything they feel is threatening their hive. Sometimes the attack the wrong thing or person!

I spent a lot of money buying bee boxes, sheets of wax, protective wear and a queen to produce honey. The start up cost and work load were high. There were disease problems and my back hurt lifting 50 pound bee boxes.

Then just as we were leaving for a holiday, a Black bear knocked over the hives. My husband went in to rescue the hives and was stung so badly that his eyes were swollen shut. Without ice cubes in the freezer, he had to use frozen steak for the multiple painful stings on his face We had eggs for supper, but I lost my bee helper.

My conclusion is that honey bees could be fun if you like weight lifting, don’t live near bears and you love honey enough to pay a high price for the start-up and extraction fees. If you want to avoid the heavy work, the local cost of renting a bee hive is approximately $1200 per year.

Native solitary bees like orchard mason bees and leafcutter bees are gentle and good-natured bees that can efficiently pollinate alongside honeybees.

Why are they called Mason bees?

Mason bees were named for their masonry skills of packing clay mud into its nest tunnel to seal each egg into its separate cell. First, at the back of the tunnel, the queen lays the female eggs. Then she finishes with smaller male eggs. The males hatch first so they’re ready and waiting to mate with the females when they emerge.

A Mason bee’s little mosquito like stinger is rarely used

In my ten years of caring for Mason bee pets, I’ve only upset one bee! I was waiting for a calm day to transfer the last ten cocoons from the fridge to their nest. It was a lovely warm day and the apple tree needed pollinating. The cocoons were wrapped in a paper towel in my cupped hand when I was distracted by the phone.

Finally, I was out in the garden walking across the lawn when I felt a surprising nip and automatically opened my hands. One little Mason flew off and nine cocoons fell into the thick grass. The escapee must have hatched and was getting squashed. It was a baby sting, like a mosquito, and nothing compared to a honey bee sting. I felt bad because I lost a couple of cocoons in thick grass, an awkward place for hatching bees. Next time I’ll be sure to have a secure box for transfers and not allow distractions.

Why are Mason Bees Important?

Mason bees are also called Orchard bees because they are considered the best orchard pollinator. It only takes 2 or 3 to pollinate a mature apple, cherry or almond tree. They also pollinate plums, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, zucchini squash, pumpkins for Halloween and much more. The list is long.

Native bees start their work earlier in the spring so they’re ready to pollinate early blooming fruit trees like plums. When honey bees are inside waiting for warmer weather or the sun to come out, the wild bees are flying. Researchers found that the native bees workday starts earlier and ends later, so they pollinate more blossoms. Each Mason bee does the pollinating of 40 or more honey bees.

They live in our backyards and work for free. When our farms were smaller, diversified with a variety of crops and free of pesticides, hundreds of species of native bees pollinated for free. Huge efficient industrial farms with single crops are poor conditions for native bees, so they have to rent and truck in honey bees. The honey bees are stressed and lost by driving long distances and native bees are pushed out of large areas.

A wide variety of native bees, including Leaf cutter bees and Bumble bees, come out to pollinate in cooler and wetter weather and work longer days. Agricultural research shows native bees are more productive. There are hundreds of different wild bees and variety is good insurance. If numbers of one species are low due to a disease one year, it’s helpful to have back up.

How to save Mason Bees

By providing food and shelter for the native bees we can feel good about creating more biodiversity and stronger bee populations to handle climate change. Avoiding pesticide sprays and plants grown from seeds coated in pesticide, means fewer bee deaths.

Be proud of your organic gardening that avoids pesticides and fungicides. This protects Mason bees and all beneficial insects for a healthier garden and neighbour hood. If you like, you could make a sign for others to learn; Something like:

“Bees at Work! – No pesticides Please”

How to Attract Mason Bees

If you are lucky and have lots of flowers in your yard that Mason bees like, you might find wild Mason bee queens (all the workers are queens) looking for nesting spots. They look like a small fuzzy black fly but with little antennae. When the sun is on their back it shines iridescent blue. In the wild they often nest under old cedar shakes, in woodpecker holes or even in empty small plant stems.

Mason bees must have heavy clay like soil to protect their eggs, If your soil is sandy, you need to make a moist clay mud pie in a one foot hole. If it is under a sprinkler that comes on at night – perfect. You won’t have to remember to keep it moist. This shouldn’t be underneath the nest box where baby bees could fall in and get stuck!

Even If you do find wild Mason bees foraging, you probably won’t find their hidden little nests. Having your own nest box hung on a sunny south facing wall to watch is fun and easy. The first step is to see if you have lots of their favorite flowers and if you don’t plant a little garden for them.

What do Mason Bees Eat?

Mason bees like nectar and pollen from simple flowers that are yellow, blue and purple. Their favorites include aster, daisy, Black eyed Susan, lavender, poppies, alyssum, salvia and butterfly bush. . If you have room for pollinator garden patch, I found five varieties of different wild flower seed mixes. Buy a reputable mix which the garden store can assure you to be free of invasive plant seeds.

Mason bees only fly 300 feet and it’s good to keep them safe, feeding in your organic garden. If they fly into other areas, they may encounter pesticides.

What type of Home do Mason Bees Like?

If pesticides aren’t being used in your area, you may find Mason bees move into the home you provide.

There are plenty of different Mason nest boxes to buy, or if you are handy, you can make your own. There are a couple of things to consider. The bees prefer wood over slippery plastic for their masonry.

Mason bees prefer to make their nests close together, so you need 30 -50 nesting tubes. Research shows that the best length for nesting tubes is 6 – 7 inches long and with an over-hang to protect them from rain, a box box 8 inches deep would be ideal. Remember to keep sprinklers away from the nest box.

Mason bee at the entrance to the nesting tube

Nesting tubes 5/16” in diameter are best and must be opened in the autumn for taking out the cocoons and washing them. Disposable tubes prevent the build up of harmful pollen mites and diseases. If you can’t find narrow plant stems or paper drinking straws, you can often find bee tubes from garden or birding stores.

A reputable bee supply company will have healthy Mason bee cocoons that have been carefully washed with a mild bleach solution to remove mites. Sand washing is no longer recommended as it leaves too many mites on the cocoons and they can kill the baby bees either directly or by eating all their pollen food.

Fun Protectiing Mason Bees

During the day, the Mason bees, who are all queen bees, will be flying back and forth into their nesting tubes with pollen or mud and packing it in. You might like to use binoculars to get a close-up view of this process. If you stand to the side a little, you won’t block their flight path!

As you are watching your bees collect mud from their mud pie, you are like a body guard because your presence protects them from hungry birds. When you are watching the the nest, birds, squirrels and wasps won’t have a chance to steal the eggs..

When we treat all wildlife with care and respect, we’ll be living in Paradise.

Jan Cadieux

BSc MEd, is a naturalist, environmental researcher and writer. She has a life-long passion for all wild creatures from wild bees, butterflies and birds to endangered Orcas, Whale sharks and Asian elephants. With her science degree in Environmental Studies she enjoyed working for National Parks as a naturalist and became Canada’s first female National Park Warden.

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