What Are Mason Bees?

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Mason bee in nesting reed. Photo Credit: Crown Bees

Mason bees are beautiful, gentle native bees that are also excellent pollinators. Before honeybees were brought over from Europe; native bees, like mason bees, did all the pollinating here in North America. Mason bees do not produce honey – they collect pollen, whereas honeybees collect nectar. A mason bee’s whole body is hairy and collects pollen, when they land on a flower they splash and pollinate better. Additionally, they’re actively looking for pollen, making them 3x better pollinators than honeybees. Another key difference from honeybees is the mason bee doesn’t live together in a hive, instead living solitary. They’re a bee that’s active early in the season and pollinates throughout the spring.

Mason bees only have a range of about 100 meters; so they benefit you and your close neighbours. They’re extremely friendly and can be great for kids who want to stand close to the nest and watch the bees in action. They’re highly unlikely to sting and if they do it’s more like a pinch or mosquito bite.

To recap, mason bees are some of the original pollinators here before European honey bees were introduced, they’re gentle and they’re amazing pollinators. If that sounds like a bee you’d like to make a home for in your yard, then we have some tips for you!

Mason Bee Basics

  • Mason bees emerge from cocoons. Mason bees lay eggs inside reeds or tubes and their eggs develop into cocoons before they hatch as bees. They need mortar (clay) to seal the eggs in.
    • Best to keep a spot in the garden with wet clay exposed to make things easier for your bees.
  • Make it as easy for the bees as possible. They will travel but if they go far away they might not come back. Try to keep them on your property.
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    Blue Orchard Mason Bee on flower.

  • If set up in the right location with all the right amenities, native bees can take up residence. A sad reality is that today, there aren’t as many native bees around so if you’d like to purchase some cocoons to re-introduce them to the area, we have them available for purchase.
  • While gentle and fuzzy, even with a home set up, mason bees are not pets, they’re wild insects. Releasing cocoons by your house, does not guarantee that they’ll take up residence there. If they fly away, try not to be too upset, the mason bees are still in the area and doing lots of very important pollination!
  • Like with honeybees, mites are a major pest of the mason bee and often get on mason bees and inside the houses and tubes. For this reason you’ll need to clean off the cocoons before wintering them. (See cleaning tips under Fall below)
  • Some tubes will unravel and are a one time use; however you can buy reusable ones that customers can clean out annually (better if they’re committed to doing it more than once).

Making a Home for Mason Bees

Here the basic things you’ll need to create a home for mason bees –

  • Flower power, seriously. Bees need an area dense with flowers (about 1 square meter be day). You’ll want to have lots of flowers around between flowering trees, bushes and gardens and wildflowers.
  • The right location for your bee house is key. Too hot and the bees overheat, too much shade and you’ll attract beneficial wasps instead (great for controlling bugs but maybe not ideal for your bee house). A spot facing east that receives morning sun and isn’t too hot in the afternoon is ideal.
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    Simple bee house with cocoons. Photo Source: Crown Bees

    It’s in the reed. When giving mason bees a home, it’s very important that you use the right reed or tube for them to lay eggs in. A reed or tube that can be opened up to retrieve the cocoons (what the eggs turn into) is important so they’re not trapped inside. Using foreign materials like bamboo or plastic straws is not advised.

    • One-time use reeds can be affordably purchased or for long-term use, tube blocks that can be opened, cleaned and re-used are ideal.
  • Proper care for your bees. Giving your bees a bit of attention at key times can ensure their health. Harvesting cocoons (more on that later) in late fall, separating pests and cleaning the house is necessary for good bee health.
  • To keep bees around, you need to be a bit active in their care. It’s pretty simple – setting out a home for them in the spring and harvesting the cocoons from that home in the fall are important. Using the proper reeds or blocks makes this easy. Clean the cocoons and store over the winter to re-introduce in the spring. More on that in Fall care tips.
  • Keeping the birds from your bees. Sometimes birds will take an interest in your bee home and eating the residents within it. If this happens, install wire with 1”+ openings to the outside of your bee house with wire 2-3” away from the opening so bees have room to take-off and land.
  • If local mason bee populations are missing (a sad reality with local native bee populations), it could be time to try introducing some cocoons. Reintroducing native mason bees from purchased cocoons is a good way to introduce the bees to your neighbourhood. Just remember, they are wild so they may not take up residence in your bee home, but they will be nearby doing lots of pollinating!

Bee Care Calendar

Keeping mason bees doesn’t have to require a lot of time. In fact you can do it as little as an hours work in an entire year! Seriously, it can be as simple as setting up the bee house in the spring and bringing them inside and harvesting the cocoons in the fall. Here’s some season-by-season care tips.

Spring

  • In early spring, set up your bee hotel or house. It’s best to place your bee house in an east-facing direction, so the sun warms them up in the morning but they’re shaded from afternoon sun and don’t overheat.
  • When area flowers are open and daytime temperatures are at least 13°C (55°F), release your cocoons on top of or behind nesting holes.
    • Remember mason bees need clay mud for nesting. If you don’t have any it’s available for purchase. Make sure the clay doesn’t dry out and bees have a water source.
  • Watch as your bees emerge from their cocoons, males are usually the first bees to emerge and the larger females can take an extra couple weeks.

Early Summer

  • Collect your nesting reeds or blocks and store in a warm protected location with the capped ends facing up.

Fall

  • At the end of the season, mason bee tubes should be collected and the cocoons harvested.
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    Harvesting cocoons. Photo Credit: Crown Bees

  • Inside the tubes, the bee cocoons can look like they’re covered in sawdust (this is just the sheer mass of mites that may be on the cocoons). Mites don’t eat the eggs but they will go after cocoons.
  • To clean off mites, put in a bath of room temperature water with a drop of bleach. Any cocoons that don’t float aren’t viable, likely having a hole in the shell, and can be discarded.
  • When you’re collecting the bee cocoons, that’s also best time to clean up the bee tubes (if you have the reusable kind) as well.
    • Clean with a dash of bleach in water to sterilize the tubes
  • Gently dry your cocoons (so they don’t rot) and store in a paper bag or cardboard box.
    Store harvested cocoons in a fridge and check periodically to make sure it’s not humid in their storage box.
  • You can keep their house inside until the early spring.