Mason bees, or masonry bees, are a variety of solitary bee, native to North America, and common across much of the United States. They get their name from the mud “masonry work” performed to seal off the cell where eggs are laid. This keeps the eggs safe throughout their early life cycle.
A single mason bee will take up residence in any readily available hole. While it’s true that these bees can and often do make their nests in deteriorated human masonry and concrete, there is no harm done and this habit is not at all where their common name was derived.
Unlike carpenter bees, they don’t create their own holes to nest in and the two should never be confused since masonry bees do not cause that sort of destruction. These gentle, solitary bees are nothing but beneficial.
Attracting mason bees to our homes and explicitly using them in agriculture even has the potential to be a large part of the solution to colony collapse disorder of the European Honey Bee, which worsens each year.
Mason bees and their subspecies, orchard bees, nest by finding a suitable hole where they lay their eggs. Once they have collected enough pollen and nectar to feed the pupa as they hatch, the female bee uses mud or clay to construct a seal over that cell of eggs.
More eggs are laid over this seal, and after enough provisions have been delivered to these eggs as subsistence, another seal is constructed and the process is continued until the tube or nest site is full and completely sealed over.
The young bees build cocoons around themselves in which they will spend the colder months. When the weather is appropriate, they then emerge, males first, quickly followed by the females, who each mate with the waiting males before beginning their search for appropriate nesting sites.
Do Mason Bees Sting?
Can you be stung by a mason bee?
Yes, but is it likely? In general, no.
The mason bee is among the most gentle of bee species. Not only do they only sting when under serious duress, like being captured and squeezed, but males do not have stingers at all and the females produce an extremely weak venom.
The pain caused by a rare mason bee sting is quite mild and not at all comparable to the more frequent stings of other species.
Because they are solitary bees, not part of a colony, they have no queen or hive to protect; therefore they’ve never needed to evolve an aggressive demeanor or any sort of defensive behavior. Most keepers of masonry bees have never experienced their sting.
Mason Bees Vs Honey Bees
In contrast to honey bees, who extract as much pollen as possible from each individual bloom to carry deliberately back to the hive, mason bees spend most of their time flitting from one blossom to another.
Because the pollen is kept dry on their bellies, to be naturally scraped off when entering their nest, they are excellent cross-pollinators. This makes them a far superior pollinator for orchards and plantings that depend on cross-pollination for production. Mason bees simply do the work of most other pollinators more efficiently with far better results.
How To Attract Mason Bees
How can you attract mason bees into your garden?
When farmers and homeowners alike learn about the tremendous benefits to be gained from this species, this is usually their first question.
Ready-made houses for mason bees can be purchased almost everywhere, and are also very simple to make at home. The best place to place them is a protected spot with southern exposure. Around the home, this is often below a roof overhang.
Homes for mason bees in orchids can be placed directly on the trunks of fruit trees or nearby for best results. An appropriate substance for the bees’ masonry habit (ie. mud or clay) must also be readily available nearby. If the clay is not naturally available, a small mound or container of the substance should be kept and watered periodically so that the consistency is always usable for nesting bees.
A simple wooden box mounted on a wall, preferably well protected from the elements, should be placed about six or seven feet high. This box can be filled with all sorts, from hollow bamboo tubes, to paper, rolled around a pencil and taped.
A benefit of using a disposable or a easily cleaned, reusable product like bamboo is that cocoons can be harvested at the end of each season and stored. This ensures a steady population of masonry bees for years to come and is a quite simple and sanitary method.
Since tubes can be removed and washed or thrown away and replaced, they do not have the disease harboring tendency of more permanent bee residences. The ability to harvest cocoons is also a huge bonus since these young bees can be protected from the elements and predators, ensuring population stability year after year.
This species only visits blossoms in its immediate vicinity, making it ideal for agricultural purposes. While honey bees can travel for miles each day in search of pollen to collect for the hive, orchard bees never travel farther from their nests than absolutely necessary.
In the lifetime of each female, she will fill about four nests, each around six inches deep. In order to supply enough provisions to get her eggs through the pupal stage and into adulthood, each bee works throughout the day, every day, for the entirety of her two-month lifespan. In this short time, the average orchard bee will visit around 60,000 blossoms.
Do mason bees make honey?
No, mason bees do not make honey.
As a solitary species with no use for a hive, they don’t have the ability to create honey or beeswax. The trade-off, however, is a gentle species with no hive and honey to protect and a pollination rate that’s much higher than any honey producing species.
Virtually everyone who enjoys their garden can benefit from masonry bees.
Their gentleness is ideal for urban environments where neighbors are skeptical of bee-keeping and afraid of being stung.
They’re quite easy to attract and once a population has established itself, the results in the garden quickly become abundantly obvious and continue with minimal effort, year after year.