By Christopher George – I didn’t start out with the intention of learning how to raise bees for pollination. In 2005, I bought some books on honeybee culture with the idea that I wanted to learn how to start a honey bee farm. I bought two hives, the full suit, all the usual bee tools, and two sets of packaged bees. One colony started out well; the other seemed to flounder. Looking back on it, I believe the queen in the second colony did not survive transport, but as a rank beginner I didn’t recognize the signs. The first colony thrived until late in the season when I noticed it was sick with some disease. Probably foulbrood, but none of the four books I had contained a section on diseases. By the end of that season I had two sick hives, without much prospects of surviving the winter.
At the close of the 2005 season, I did some more online research about how to raise bees and discovered some books about mason bees, also known as Blue Orchard Bees. Unlike honeybees, mason bees are native to North America and look like black flies. I found a number of articles on purchasing or building mason bee housing. If your main goal is to produce honey, mason bees won’t help you. But if reliable pollination in your garden or orchard is the goal, this is where mason bees shine. An individual mason bee is a better pollinator than a honeybee. (Honeybees make up for that in numbers, though.)
Mason bees are also hardier. They can fly and pollinate when it’s too cool or breezy for honeybees, so they may get to some early blossoms that honeybees miss. They’re also extremely easy to care for compared to honey bees. And since they have no honey cache to protect, mason bees don’t sting, unless you purposely abuse them in some way.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think honeybees are awesome, but with all the medication issues these days they take more time to manage. Also, last I checked the medications were sold in 10-packs, which is too much for a hobbyist with two hives. Since mason bees don’t form social groups, they don’t generally spread disease between them. So I now buy honey from a small local producer that manages 30+ hives. (It’s best to support locally grown food any time you can.)
Mason bees lay their eggs in tube-like structures, such as the 5/16-inch gap between shingles on a shingle roof. As it turns out, paper straws work great. I use a “nesting can” system that holds 74 paper straws each inside a protective cardboard tube. The nesting can and cardboard tubes can be reused for several seasons. You can use a piece of PVC pipe in place of the nesting can, which would last indefinitely. You can also buy the materials in bulk to save money. There are other colony designs and bee hive plans available online that consist of drilling holes in a large block of wood, but the nesting can system is less work, and consistency (from the bee point of view) is guaranteed.
So I started out the 2006 season with a new adventure in how to raise bees by buying two colony enclosures, four nesting cans, and a dozen tubes of starter mason bees from Knox Cellars. A year later, I have three colonies and over 100 filled tubes. I’ll add another colony each year for the next few seasons as I continue to learn how to raise bees. On my property, I’m planting an assortment of trees and berry bushes after researching the best plants for bees. By the time the rest of my berry bushes mature, I’ll have a sizeable army of mason bees ready to spring into action.
Since mason bees typically fly only 300 feet or so from their colony, I’m spreading the colonies out by about that much along the edges of my plantings. Each colony is simply a 6 x 6 post in the ground, with a couple pieces of pressure treated wood screwed to the top for a 24 x 24-inch windbreak, and the colony enclosure attached to the middle of the wind break wood about seven feet off the ground. The colony enclosure is made of cedar, not pressure treated wood. You can also attach a colony to the side of a building. I have all my colonies facing southeast to catch the morning sun.
If all you have is a family-sized garden, a single colony of mason bees should cover it. For a larger market garden of maybe an acre, I’d put a colony at either end. To pollinate an acre of apple trees you might need 250 female mason bees. Triple that number to account for the fact that the bee population is around 1/3 female, and you end up with a need for 750 bees per acre. One of my colonies with two “nesting cans” can house twice that number if fully filled. They’re not usually fully filled, though. I’ve been getting them about 75 percent filled.
So how do you manage a mason bee colony if you’re just getting started learning how to raise bees? They winter over in a refrigerator. In spring, I put out the empty colonies with two nester cans, and attach some tubes of live bees from last year to the bottom of the colony. I have a few dozen honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea var. edulis) plants, which bloom fairly early, so I do a staggered release. In early April I put out a third of my bees, and a couple weeks later another third, and at the end of April the remaining third. That way, if a freak blizzard comes along in the second week, I don’t lose all of them. Also, if weather does kill off the bees in the first or second batch, they may have gotten at least some of their pollinating job done before the freeze. They can survive a few moderate frosts by hunkering down inside their tubes. The third batch of bees can then visit the later blossoms. Contrast that to honeybees, which are more prone to miss early blossoms if the weather is too cool or breezy.
The bees breed as soon as they emerge from their cocoons, and then go nuts pollinating and laying eggs. The female lays an egg at the back of the tube, caps off that cell with some mud, and then repeats the process until the tube contains six or more eggs, females at the back and males toward the front. Thus, males are the ones at risk from woodpeckers. A female mason bee will produce an average of 36 offspring. Every week I check on the colonies and see more tubes being capped off. It’s enjoyable to watch them coming and going from the colony. They keep that up until around the first week of July, when I notice the tubes are no longer being filled. Perhaps the bees worked themselves to death, got picked off by birds, or just flew off into the sunset. By that point I have all my pollination done for the year, plus next year’s bees are safely sealed up in their colonies. The colony opening can now be covered to keep woodpeckers out, if that’s a problem. So far I’ve been getting back at least twice as many filled tubes as I set out in the spring. If I keep adding colonies, I’ll eventually reach the saturation point for my property.
Between the time the first eggs are laid in the spring and the time the new offspring spin their winter cocoons, usually October, it’s important to not disturb or move the colonies. If you take the nester can out of the colony in July and drop or shake it, you’ll likely kill all the bees inside. Between Halloween and Thanksgiving is when I take the bees out of the colonies, sort them out, and put them to bed in the fridge till the following spring.
Finally, mason bees and honeybees, or bumblebees for that matter, all have a niche to fill in nature. If you’re concerned about the bee population decline, learning how to raise bees is a good way to do something about it. They don’t fight with each other to get to blossoms. Refer to any of the several good books available on mason bees as you research information on how to raise bees, as I am no expert on the topic. But as a bee hobbyist, my experience with mason bees as a way to learn how to raise bees has been nothing but positive.
Originally published in Countryside 2008 and regularly vetted for accuracy.