Did You Know…
If there ever was a Pacific Northwest native that is the personification of this region, it is this tiny, overlooked creature.
Let’s give the unheralded mason bee its due.
Yes, the mason bee, a bug that maybe you kinda, sorta have heard of. This is the time of year when seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mail and you home gardeners daydream of warm days. Consider these bees for your garden. They hardly take any maintenance (maybe 45 minutes a year, says one expert) and cost no more than a dinner out.
A true Northwesterner can relate to the mason bee. It just wants to be left alone. It is mellow. It doesn’t want fancy digs. Actually, it prefers a hidden dwelling. But laid-back as it appears, admirers say it will outproduce any competitor. It is frequently mistaken for a fly by homeowners who see it coming out behind a shingle on the side of their house. The shiny, dark-blue mason bee does look like a common fly. So out comes the insecticide spray to kill the bee that helps their garden flower and that apple tree produce great yields.
Sure, the mason bee doesn’t have those cute orangish-yellow rings that the bigger bee has. The mason bee doesn’t even produce honey. But its admirers say that it can do one astounding thing: It is considerably better than the honeybee when it comes to pollinating many of those crops that make up the one-third of our food supply that depends on bees. (Although a major drawback for commercial orchardists, says one entomologist, is they reproduce only once a year, as opposed to the honeybees’ continual reproduction during warm weather. Mason bee admirers say this can be addressed by keeping mason bees in a cooler until they’re needed.)
Among the mason bee’s recent converts is an Eastern Washington orchardist. On 42 acres in Omak, Jim Freese grows apples, pears and cherries. Every year he rents honeybee hives at $57 each for pollination. After going to a presentation about mason bees, he decided in 2015 to use them alongside honeybees on some cherries and Bartlett pears. He didn’t see an increase in pear production, but he says the post-mason-bee pears were a “nice, big fruit.” It’s hard to say if that was because of the bees, says Freese. “There are so many variables.”
The presentation he heard included Dave Hunter, 54, who in 2008 started Crown Bees, based in a small industrial park in Woodinville. He has become a passionate promoter/advocate for these insects. That passion is captured in the title of a book he wrote, “Mason Bee Revolution: How the Hardest Working Bee Can Save the World One Backyard at a Time.”
It didn’t start out that way for Hunter. He is 54, a civil engineer, and for years was real-estate director for Airborne Express, a now-defunct Seattle firm. Back then, he says, his gardening consisted of, “I mowed the lawn, putting down chemicals.” Then Hunter was out of a job in 2004 and pondering what to do. That coincided with a friend explaining that mason bees were the secret to his apple tree being overflowing with fruit. Something about them just intrigued Hunter. “I had a midlife crisis handed to me. I was no less intelligent than when I had been laid off,” he says. He says, “I interviewed every possible researcher in the nation.”
One quickly finds out that honeybees were introduced to North America by early European settlers. Before that it was the native bees like the mason bee that did the pollination. There are big differences between the two. Honeybees live in hives and have a complex society with different bees doing different jobs. They have one fertile queen bee.
Mason bees are solitary, and every female is fertile. The role of the male is to mate and then die. (Insert your own snide remark.) Mason bees don’t build hives. The female builds a nest inside holes left by tree-boring insects, or in a crevice behind a home’s shingles. They do not damage homes; they simply use an available space they’ve found for laying eggs and cap the eggs’ cells with mud. Big deal. A little dry mud behind your shingles.
“No controls are recommended,” says a Washington State University Extension leaflet about mason bees. Mason bees are much more efficient pollinators than honeybees because of the way the female carries pollen from a flower. As Hunter explains on his website, the female carries pollen on the underside of her hairy abdomen, then scrapes the pollen off within her nesting hole. But because the pollen is carried dry on her hair, it also falls off easily as she moves among flowers.
Hunter decided he’d make a business out of mason bees. Initially he worked out of his home, selling mason-bee cocoons and kits. Hunter says you can host mason bees on your property by spending nearly nothing (with a rolled-up piece of paper and an empty pop bottle), or get fancier kits that range from $44 (a plastic nesting tube) to $100 (a wood home in the shape of a raindrop). That first year in 2008, revenue for his company was $2,000. He says it could reach $2 million this year.
Hunter is not the only one selling mason-bee kits. You can find them in nurseries, through Amazon and from a Bothell firm called Rent Mason Bees. With the latter, for $25 or $50 you pick up the kit, hang it up in your yard, and when the bees are done, bring it back to an agreed-upon location. This year, says owner Jim Watts, he anticipates renting 1,500 kits.
For Hunter, the mason bee is really a revolution waiting to happen. To pollinate 12 pounds of cherries, you need only one mason bee, but would need 60 honeybees, he says. He will need to change a lot of minds. Says Steve Sheppard, chair of Washington State University’s Department of Entomology, “Mason bees only emerge during a certain time of year, and their life span is only several weeks.” But Sheppard says about honeybees, “You can put them on a truck, drive them anywhere, and the next day they’re pollinating. They’re portable.” Hunter says that the cocoons of mason bees can be refrigerated to control their emergence. In soft-drink coolers at his Woodinville headquarters, Hunter keeps 550,000 to 600,000 bees in cocoons. As the weather warms up, he ships them out to customers.
“We’re going to change how we get food,” he exclaims. So. Even if you live in an apartment, are there flowers or flowering trees within 300 feet? Mason bees. Really real Northwest.