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Pollinate Your Garden With Native (Mason) Bees

Tritrain is an avid gardener and aspires to have a homestead of several acres in the USA.

The Mason bee is native to North and South America and is an excellent pollinator.

The Mason bee is native to North and South America and is an excellent pollinator.

About the Mason Bee

Mason bees are native throughout the Americas, and there are over 300 species in North America alone. They are part of the Megachilidae family in the Osmia genus. They took the name "mason" due to their tendency to use mud or "masonry" when building their home. Unlike honey bees, which live in hives that can hold tens of thousands of bees, the lowly mason bee is solitary.

Mason bees have short lives that last only a few weeks. The females' sole focus is to collect pollen and build nests for their babies. For these creatures, there is very little time for anything else. They work to the point of exhaustion. In fact, during colder rainy periods, the bees tend to hunker down and wait for the weather to become more favorable again. When this happens, they tend to live longer, stretched further due to the "downtime" of bad weather.

Calm and Docile Bees

Mason bees tend to be very calm. They have no hive to protect and they only have a few enemies. Their time is spent going to and fro between the flowering plants and their tiny mud home. Although female mason bees can sting, they very rarely do. They simply are not as aggressive as social bees.

What Do Mason Bees Look Like?

With over 300 different species, they come in many shapes and sizes. Some are almost as big as a quarter, while others are barely bigger than a gnat. Many people mistake them for flies, due to some species having a bit of shiny color. However, upon close inspection, you will notice something that is common to all of them . . .

Very Effective (and Messy!) Pollinators

They are messy pollen collectors. Their bodies often become covered in pollen, unlike the honey bees who tend to collect the pollen on their hind legs. Mason bees can have up to 95% of their bodies covered in pollen.

This messiness is why they are so wonderful as pollinators. They spread the pollen everywhere they land. For this reason, they are considered to be among the best pollinators of any other insect. They are the quintessential best friend of gardeners everywhere.

Mason bee covered in pollen.

Mason bee covered in pollen.

Little Super Heroes

The easiest way to tell a bee apart from a fly is to look at the wings. Flies only have two wings, whereas a bee (any bee) has four wings. It can be difficult when the bee is really tiny, but if it is going in and out of flowers then there is a good chance that it is a bee. Most mason bees are smaller than a honey bee, which gives them an advantage. Mason bees can fit in a larger selection of flowers.

You can even try to follow them to their home. All bees fly as straight as they can back to their home. Known as a "beeline", they don't waste precious energy sightseeing.

Kind of looks like a fly, right?

Kind of looks like a fly, right?

4 Ways to Encourage More Mason Bees to Visit Your Garden

You may be wondering how to get more of these wonderful insects to visit your garden. It's not complicated. There are a few important, yet simple, details that must be available for the mason bees to play a role in your garden.

1. Grow Flowering Plants

First of all, the mason bees need to eat. If the mason bees emerge from their cocoons too early or too late to find nearby food they will likely starve. Make sure there are flowering plants available throughout the time period in which mason bees are out and about. They tend to emerge in mid-spring when it is consistently 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. For most parts of North America, this would be mid-spring. It is important that numerous flowers are in bloom at this point.

Early-Flowering Plants That Help Mason Bees

There are several perennial early-blooming plants that tend to be very helpful for the survival of mason bees. Here are some:

  • Fruit Trees: This is a primary reason why fruit orchards and mason bees work so well together.
  • Heather: A bush loaded with pink flowers, bees tend to love them.
  • Daffodils: When we think of spring we often think of daffodils.
  • Crocus: They are known to push through the snow and are among the very first to bloom. There are more than 80 species. Some are hardy to zone 3.
  • Hellebores: Also called Christmas Rose, are a common winter-blooming flower. They are hardy to zone 4.

It is helpful to the bees to plant your flowers, bushes and trees in clumps or lines, rather than scattering them all around a yard. The bees will need to spend less time searching for flowers and more time pollinating and consuming the nectar.

I recommend using local native plants, which are said to be four times more attractive to mason bees than exotic flowers. It is also best to plant cold hardy perennials, rather than annuals.

I also encourage you to plant flowers that come in different shapes. Some species of mason bees have long tongue lengths or are particularly small in size and prefer unusual sizes and shapes.

2. Make Bee Houses

A second factor for mason bees is having cracks and holes available to them to build the cocoons of their offspring. So, where can I get a house for a mason bee? You can build one easily enough or you can buy one, along with the tubes if you wish. Gardeners and orchardists often make simple houses for the mason bees, which can hold a few dozen bees.

Most of the common mason bees tend to like long cracks or holes to build their cocoons for their young. Remember, it's the females that do most of the work after being impregnated. The males tend to spend the rest of their short lives eating nectar, but still pollinating.

A simple home built by drilling 5/16th inch holes in a block of wood.

A simple home built by drilling 5/16th inch holes in a block of wood.

3. Provide a Water Supply

A third factor is supplying a small source of water, with some partially submerged rocks to land on. When providing a source of water for your bees it is important to give them spots to land. The best way to do this is to use rocks. Stack the rocks, or use sufficiently large ones, so that they are above the water line. Think of these rocks as landing spots for the bees, so you want them to be stable. A small birdbath in the garden works just fine.

The bees will use the water during their nest building process. They may also want a drink. Some people will create a source of mud near the water for the bees. Why not? It's a great idea!

4. Provide a Mud Supply (Optional)

To be honest, I think the bees can manage this without much assistance from us. Although you can buy "special" powder that the bees can use, I really don't think it's necessary. After all, there is plenty of dirt in and around the garden. If you do decide to have mud available, then it may be helpful to have it near their nest in the form of a small pile of dirt.

Ideally, all of these things would be relatively close to one another. A general rule of thumb is to have them no further than 100 feet from their nests, as they go back and forth between flowers and their nests.

Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 And Drewson


And Drewson (author) from United States on November 08, 2017:

Most orchardists are aware of mason bees. It depends on whether or not the person feels there are enough pollinators. Also, honey bees provide a second income for the farmers. All bees are important though.

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on November 08, 2017:

I am positive that I've seen these bees based upon the photos. However,I don't have any experience with beekeeping. But, it seems that European Honey Bees are the choice used most for commercial agriculture. Why is this if Mason Bees are better pollinators?

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on November 06, 2017:

I believe you misunderstood. All I saw on the desert were wasps and Mason bees. Water was no issue at least locally. Our water bill averaged $150 a month, with a summer peak of $345.

The Honeybee hive was where I live now which isn't desert. Here is where I don't see the mason bees. As near as I can tell there are now three hives in trees within 1500 ft of my house. The second anything blooms it is overrun with honeybees, nothing else stands a chance.

And Drewson (author) from United States on November 03, 2017:

It's very possible that you saw mason bees, or other types, and didn't realize it. They can be as small as a gnat. However, in the desert lack of water may be an issue.

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on November 02, 2017:

Although I saw a lot of these when I was younger, I haven't seen them in years. My neighbor kept a hive of honeybees so their wasn't much pollen left for anything else. After he died the bees created new hives in the trees.

On the California desert they (mason bees) were the only game in town. I don't believe I even saw a honey bee there. We had fruit trees, flowers, and crops so there was plenty of pollen. There was only about a month a year when something wasn't blooming.