Using bees to benefit your garden: Edmonds expert shares tips

During Saturday’s presentation at the Edmonds Native Plant Demonstration Garden, bee expert Todd Brown points out the nesting holes where the spring mason bees live.

Story and photo by Lily Jaquith
Western Washington University communications intern

While the rainy weather Saturday was not the best to observe bees, Edmonds resident Todd Brown had a sunny disposition – and some great bee jokes – as he shared a wealth of knowledge about using spring mason bees to benefit your garden.

Brown, a local bee expert, began his presentation at the Edmonds Native Plant Demonstration Garden by addressing the role that pollination plays in our lives, adding that many creatures pollinate, including hummingbirds, butterflies, beetles, bats and of course, bees.

“Can anyone name the five types of bees?” Brown asked before revealing that there are in fact over 4,000 different kinds of bees. The focus of Saturday’s presentation, mason bees, is one of the 40 percent of bee types that live only in holes, Brown said.

Unlike honey bees, mason bees do not make honey. But they can also pollinate in light rain and cooler temperatures, meaning they are a perfect match for the Northwest habitat. These two type of bees also pollinate differently: Since mason bees have a harder time holding on to the pollen they collect, they are able to spread the pollen over more area. While it takes approximately 545 honey bees to pollinate one full-grown fruit tree, that same job can be completed by only seven mason bees.

As their name implies, spring mason bees are only active from March-June. Adults begin to emerge from cocoons in late March, with males appearing a few days before the females. They mate, and the male’s work is done.

However, the female must gather pollen, nectar and mud to create a nest in which to lay her eggs. She begins by making a mud wall and then placing the pollen and nectar mixture against the mud. This will be food for the larva. She places another layer of mud and then repeats the process six to seven times until the hole is filled. The larva hatch a few days later and throughout July and August begin spinning their cocoons for winter. By September, they are hibernating and the process starts again in March.

Brown offered many tips for ensuring successful reproduction of spring mason bees, with five essentials to-dos:

A nesting hole. The hole that mason bees live in should be four to six inches long and made of reed, paper straw or wood. However, if the holes are made of wood, there should be paper inserts to ensure the nesting hole can be cleaned. Don’t use a plastic straw since the moisture from the pollen and mud can’t escape and can cause mold.

Food. The bees should have food within 200-300 feet of their hole. They prefer composite flowers, such as sunflowers, dandelions and dahlias.

Shelter. The nesting holes should be placed under an overhang or have some sort of protection from rain. They should also face the sunlight. The nesting holes should be hung just above your head so you can have a good view of the bees’ activity. This also  keeps the holes out of the reach of any household pets.

Mud. Mud is essential to reproduction of the spring mason bees. There should be some mud 20-30 feet away from the habitat. If no mud is in that area, it’s easy to create a mud hole.

Cocoon harvesting in the fall. It’s important to collect the cocoons from the nesting holes to check for pests such as pollen mites and earwigs. Cocoons should be stored at 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and at 60-70 percent humidity. The humidity is important to ensure the cocoons have enough moisture. Check the cocoons monthly for mold, which can be rinsed off (no more than 15 minutes under water). The cocoons are then released in March when the temperature is steadily at about 50 degrees.

While the spring mason bee season is just ending, Brown said that this is the perfect time for bee keepers to bring the cocoons inside (you can also share cocoons with family and friends), and to make plans for keeping mason bees next season.


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