About Mason Bees...
Mason bees are classified as solitary gregarious bees. This means that they have no real social interaction in the sense that a honeybee population would, but mason bees do like to nest near each other. What does this mean for you? It means that mason bees don't protect their eggs after they lay them. They actually don't care about you or your children at all so they are the perfect backyard bee. The male has no stinger. The female has one but uses it so seldom that there is a common belief that mason bees can't sting. The females can but rarely do.
The life cycle of these bees is fairly simple. Every spring when the day time temperatures start to get over 50 degrees with some regularity and enough days have passed since the egg was laid the previous spring, the mason bees chew through their protective cocoons, through the mud walls that protect their nesting chambers, and emerge into your garden. The actual date varies across the country from mid February in warm winter areas to late May in colder climates and higher elevations.
The males emerge first, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before the females. They spend their time foraging for nectar to build up their strength. They stay close by the nesting tubes waiting for the females to emerge. These males do a bit of incidental pollinating while feeding but the vast majority of the work will be done later by the female. As soon as the females emerge from the nesting holes, the males mate with them and then move away. When all of the females have been mated with the males die, and the rest of the season is all females.
Female mason bees spend their days gathering pollen and nectar from flowers within about 100 yards of their nests. They use this pollen/nectar mix to make a lump of bee bread and place it in the back of a found hole. When the proper amount of food has been placed in the chamber the female backs in and lays a single egg into the food mass. She works her way down the length of the hole making cell after cell until she has filled the entire tube. Finally an extra thick masonry plug is constructed at the hole opening and the bee flies off looking for another hole. Female eggs are laid toward the back of the hole where it is safe from marauders and male eggs are put toward the front of the holes. In this way a hungry invader is likely to eat males only and leave the females safe. In the mason bee world it is all about protecting the females. Only a few males need to survive to mate the next spring, but every female is important.
By early summer, all the adult females have laid their eggs and they die. The eggs spend the summer developing into new bees, and by fall they are fully mature bees in newly spun cocoons still in the same nesting tubes. They then hibernate all winter and wait for the signs of spring that will have them emerge in your garden. In other words, every year you will see the children of the bees you had the previous year. The colony should continue to grow every year as long as they have holes to lay their eggs into and pollen with which to provision the egg chambers.
The Orchard Mason Bee is a north American native pollinating bee that is a wonderfully effective pollinator of early spring crops. In fact they are such generalist feeders that they will very effectively pollinate just about any pollen bearing flower that blooms in the early spring.
Studies done in netted orchards show that 250 female orchard mason bees can pollinate apples as effectively as 50,000 honey bees! They will work in cooler weather and more dampness (like the Pacific Northwest habitat) than honeybees and they are absolutely non-aggressive. They seldom wander very far from home and are easy to raise. This makes them the perfect pollinator for home gardens and boutique orchards. Mason bees don't make honey. They make great apples and cherries though!
Bring Back the Bees!!
Numerous studies state that pollinating bees are disappearing!! Placing Mason bees in your backyard is an EXCELLENT way to combat this decline!!