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Introducing Native Hole-nesting Bees to Your Garden

How to support your garden and your bee community without the effort of raising honeybees – This is the first of three useful guest blogs by our pollinator-supporting friends over at Crown Bees of Woodinville, Washington.


Planting a food garden is a labor of love. Gardeners put so much time and effort into the work of creating and maintaining a garden, but we don’t always give much thought to pollination. We tend to take bees and their work for granted because bee populations have historically been robust and thriving.


Many gardeners wish they could raise honeybees to ensure their garden’s pollination but raising honeybees takes a lot of time, money and training. And some communities don’t allow honey beekeeping because of safety concerns. The problems facing honeybee populations are well known and honeybees are not the only bees suffering due to habitat loss, pollution, disease, and climate change.


Alternative bees to the rescue:

Blue orchard mason bee

Mason bees and leafcutter bees are alternatives to honey bees that gardeners can rely on and they are better pollinators, easier to raise, cheaper, and most importantly, safer for children.

Blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are one of North America’s 3,600 native bee species (honey bees are from Europe). Alfalfa leafcutter bees were introduced in the 1940’s in order to save and maintain the alfalfa feed industry. Alfalfa leafcutter bees are now naturalized across North America. Both mason and leafcutter bees are solitary, hole-nesting bees that are superior pollinators and we can raise in our gardens and farms.


Female blue orchard mason bee covered in pollen. Photo by Jacob Dunphy.



Why are they superior pollinators?

Honey bees carry pollen packed wet onto special hairy plates on their hind legs. Mason and leafcutter bees don’t have these special structures on their legs, instead they have special hairs on the underside of their bellies. Pollen is carried dry and loose on the large surface area of their hairy bellies and pollen falls off easily at every flower visited. One mason bee can carry out the pollination action of 100-200 honeybees!



Mason bees emerge in cooler, wetter, and windier weather than honey bees. Mason and leafcutter bees have a short flying range from their nests to flowers of only 300 feet. Mason and leafcutter bees are not picky about the flowers they visit. Because they are generalists, you can be assured that they are staying close to their home and pollinating your gardens and orchards. Almost every bee, except for a social queen, has a flying life span of about 4-6 weeks. Each solitary mason and leafcutter female bee has a feeling of urgency to get their parenting duties done and this makes them wake up earlier, stay out later, and fly in worse weather.



Are they really gentle and easy to raise?

Because they don’t have a colony and stores of honey and pollen to protect, solitary bees are typically much less aggressive and don’t mind you watching them come and go to their nesting house.


Solitary bees overwinter in cocoons, making them easy to handle and move. The steps for raising mason and leafcutter bees are really simple: set up the bee house and nesting materials, release cocoons, wait as they work, protect filled nesting materials, harvest cocoons, repeat! There’s no need to feed and upkeep honey stores in the winter since the bees are sleeping in cocoons.




Male leafcutter bees have green eyes and golden hair. Photo by Demarus Sandlin.



What are solitary bees?

Honey bees and bumblebees are social bees with only one fertile female bee in the colony. We all know social bees pretty well and we grew up learning about how they live. But actually, almost 99% of the world’s 21,000+ bee species do not live in social structures. Non-social bees are called solitary bees and every solitary bee is fertile. Each solitary female bee lives and works on her own and she has all the responsibility to take care of her young.



What are hole-nesting bees?

About 70% of bee species build their nests underground and individual bees can share a main tunnel entrance. About 30% of bees nest in holes like an old grub tunnel in dead wood or the hollow of a branch or stem. We can’t raise ground-nesting bees very easily but we can raise hole-nesting bees because we can recreate their nesting holes, harvest their cocoons, and move them to where we need them. Solitary bees do not live in hives, instead we call the structures we build for them bee houses.


A female mason bee rests in her nesting hole, a natural lake reed. Photo by Tim Krogh.



A female bee claims a nesting hole as her own and starts building nesting chambers in the very back of the hole first. Each nesting chamber is made up of a mix of pollen and nectar (called a pollen loaf), a single egg, and a protective wall. Mason bees use moist clayey mud to build walls between nesting chambers. Leafcutter bees build protective leafy cocoons, all in a line, with

each cocoon separated from each other with a layer of leaves. When the female is done with one nesting hole she protects the nest with an extra thick layer of nest building material called a capped end. These capped ends let us know that the bee house was used.



Which bees are right for me?

Mason bees emerge in the early spring when weather is consistently warmer than 55*F. They are great pollinators of fruit and nut trees and blueberry and strawberry bushes. Leafcutter bees emerge in early summer when the weather warms above 70*F. Leafcutter bees pollinate melon, squash, pea, and summer vegetables and flowers.


You can raise both bees in the same bee house, just swap out nesting materials from mason bees and replace it with leafcutter materials. Mason bees prefer 8mm nesting holes and leafcutter bees prefer 6mm sized nesting holes.



Ensure your garden’s pollination

Raising mason and leafcutter bees will help your garden grow more and grow better fruit and vegetables. Many flowers need to be visited many times in order to grow fruit at all. For example, a pear flower needs to be pollinated 30 times to make fruit! A flower that is properly pollinated will grow fruit that is rounder, fuller, and healthier. Adding a different bee species to your garden or farm can increase your yield by 24%! All of the effort that you put into your garden will be rewarded when you raise gentle solitary hole-nesting bees.



Want to get started?


See our native bee keeping supplies and pollinator kits at this link:


(Click here)





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