Orchard Mason Bees

I just got some bees in the mail. They’re not honey bees, they’re called Orchard Mason Bees. They don’t live in a hive or make honey, and they very rarely sting people. In the winter they live in cocoons, like these

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(Note the little collapsed box behind them, you’ll see that again.)

The advantage to Orchard Mason Bees, apart from the fact that they don’t sting, is that they’re much better pollinators than honey bees. First of all, where as honey bees travel for miles to reach whatever type of nectar they happen to want at the moment, mason bees never travel more than a few hundred yards, meaning they pollinate your garden, not somewhere random in the city (assuming you live in a city.) They’re also claimed to visit many more flowers, perhaps more than twice as many flowers, as honey bees; and to pollinate 90%+ of those flowers, as compared to a 5% rate for honey bees. (These numbers and all other facts, unless otherwise stated, come from the delightful book, “The Orchard Mason Bee” by Brian Griffin.)

Of course the only reason we should welcome something into our garden isn’t the practical, concrete purpose it serves, and so it is with the mason bees: unlike the European invaders, the honey bees, these are a California native bee. They are a natural part of the ecosystem, and so both benefit and benefit from it. They make their home here happily, and do so without humans having to intervene at all – in fact if we try to do anything for them, like move their nesting site to a sunnier place, it only confuses them!

But enough pontificating. Hopefully you like these little creatures as much as I do. Let me show you the little house I made for them

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This is my first attempt, and the holes are a little uneven, but I don’t think the bees will mind.

Notice the little box on the side; this is the box from the first picture. It’s where the cocoons will rest until the bees wake up. Usually the bees spend the whole winter in chambers stacked in tunnels or tubes, with a mud wall separating the chambers and the bees inside (the ‘mason’ part of their name.) That’s what all the 5/8″ holes in the 4×4 are going to house this coming winter, I hope. However when they send you the bees, they take the cocoons out of the tubes before they put them in the post; they claim the bees don’t mind, I hope it’s true!

One design point, the holes actually go all the way through the 4×4, but the back is sealed with a piece of plywood attached with screws

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This is so the holes can be cleaned out with a pipe cleaner next season. Otherwise predatory mites and wasps can infect the tubes and attack the next generation.

A little bit of flashing and some eye hooks, and we’re good to goImage

Here’s the cocoons again, in the daylight, with Zoë doing something silly in the backgroundImage

They look a little crowded in here, I hope they don’t fight on their way outImage

And finally here they are hanging on an East Facing wall. Now there’s nothing to do but leave them alone till the next generation is asleep in fall. Good luck guys! Have fun!Image

4 thoughts on “Orchard Mason Bees

  1. Coool! Maybe it doesn’t matter, but do these bees come back to the same bee-house year after year? or do they gradually disperse into local environment?

  2. My understanding is it’s a bit of both.

    So first off it’s not a house in the sense of being a home. Rather each tube is a nesting site for one female bee. Although she may spend the night there while she’s constructing it, once she fills a tube with eggs and chambers she leaves it never to return again.

    Similarly, once the next generation wakes up, they leave behind their wooden womb with no intention of returning. However, when they emerge, they’re fully formed adults, and often mate immediately after emerging; so they start looking for a place to build their own nests right away. The hope is, if you put suitable holes right next to the ones they’ve emerged from, they’ll lay their eggs there, and so remain in your garden for generations to come.

    So the house itself will be vacated and abandoned next year. But if another house is built next door, the bees themselves should stick around.

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