3 things Mason bees need to flourish, and to give a boost to your garden

MASON BEES ARE SMALL. They don’t look like what we think a bee should look like and in fact more closely resemble a fly, although some are an attractive metallic greenish-blue. While they might live and nest in proximity to others, most native bees, including the blue orchard Mason bee, are loners. Solitary by nature, each female Mason bee forages for food, prepares a nesting environment and lays eggs all on her own.

Independent, adaptable and resilient, Mason bees emerge from their cocoons at the first hint of warmth in spring and fly in wet and windy weather, conditions that keep other bees grounded. It’s in the best interest of gardeners, farmers and anyone who eats to support this early-season pollinator.

Plotting our gardens to provide pollinator habitat is an important link in an ecological chain that connects growing spaces into a whole that’s much larger than any single garden. More pollinators and better pollination mean more productive gardens for everyone. Life would be sad without berries.

For years, I’ve had a Mason bee “hotel” in the garden, a simple box filled with hollow bamboo tubes to provide nesting space. The gentle, nonstinging Mason bees are fascinating to watch as they begin to emerge from last year’s mud-stopped cocoons, typically sometime in March. I call my box my Bee TV, as compelling as the latest Netflix show and a heads-up that spring is well and surely underway.

Mason bees need three things to flourish and boost pollination and productivity in your garden:

Flowers. Lots of flowers in bloom, from late March through May. Not only do blooms furnish nourishing pollen and nectar, but bee researchers also have found that the more flowers that are in bloom at the same time, the greater the population of these valuable early-season pollinators.

Foraging Mason bees belly-flop from bloom to bloom, gathering pollen all over their bodies. Inelegant? Perhaps — but it’s an efficiency that enables them to pollinate almost all the flowers they land on, which experts estimate might be as many as 2,000 blossoms a day.

Don’t worry if your garden doesn’t include floral riches. Property lines mean nothing to these hardworking insects, but a large, paved area, like a parking lot, is an insurmountable barrier.

Mason bees forage within a limited range of about 300 feet of their nesting site in all directions.

Home gardens, parks, commercial plantings and even patio containers filled with early-season blooms allow pollinators to leapfrog around an urban environment during their brief life. Suddenly that parking strip infested with weedy dandelions looks like garden gold.

Sun and shelter. It’s likely that your garden is already home to this industrious pollinator. Mason bees are native to North America and naturally nest in garden cavities and holes created by birds or other insects. But if you’re looking to add a nesting box to your landscape, choose a sunny location, preferably south-facing, that receives morning light to encourage the bees to emerge early in the day. An overhanging eave or a neighboring fence provides additional shelter from wind and rain.

Mud. The third requirement after flowers and sun is mud, which Mason bees use to seal up the eggs in their nests, thus the origin of “Mason” in their name. This not typically a problem for Pacific Northwest gardens, where spring is reliably damp. However, we’re learning that when it comes to climate, “typical” is changing. During the odd dry spring, you’ll need to provide a reliable source of mud to support Mason bees.

Like so many natural processes, the life cycle of a mason bee is generative: Habitat invites life, which in turn creates more life.

Many local nurseries carry Mason bee nesting supplies. For a deep dive into more information, visit crownbees.com, a local resource committed to the health of regional Mason bee populations, and educating gardeners and farmers who want to support this fascinating insect.

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