MASON BEES!

Updated: Mar 22

Late winter, early spring is time to think about Mason Bees, also known as Blue Orchard Bees or B.O.B.'s. These native pollinators are a fruit farmer's best friend. Over the past few weeks, Tanya Grant and Gail Bryn-Jones' grades 4-5 classes at Salt Spring Elementary have been gleaning the nectar of apiarian knowledge about these special insects from Ken Hargrove and Harry Burton, island experts.

Students first foraged for info at the Rainbow Allotment Gardens behind the Aquatic Centre, where Marian Hargrove pointed out flower beds filled with heather, crocuses, hellebores, and other early bloomers to provide native bees with shoulder season nectar and pollen. The children were then regaled with Mason Bee facts by her husband Ken, and shown the BOB nesting boxes around the Community Garden.


Ken shared that "Mason bees pollinate about 115 times faster than the introduced honeybees." The crowd was really wowed by: "It takes 2,000 honeybees to pollinate a large apple tree, but only 10-15 Mason bees." The kids suggested that someone should cross the two for more effective pollination AND honey, and call it a MONEY BEE!

This past week, Harry Burton of Apple Luscious Orchards and SSI Apple Fest fame, continued this pollination of young minds in the school's Geodesic Dome. He taught about native bee diversity (there are over 450 native bee species in British Columbia!) and described the differences between European honeybees and native bees (70% native bees are ground-nesting, and 90% live solitary lives, like the BOB). Although honeybees are familiar pollinators, local wild bees are better adapted. They get busy pollinating even when the air is cool or in light rain, conditions when honeybees stay in their hives.


Then, he demonstrated how to build the right kind of BOB nests, so they can be taken apart and cleaned each year.

Following Harry's guidance, several 5/16" (about 8mm) grooves were routed in 1x6 pine boards and cut into 6" pieces. The kids smoothed out the grooves, stacked the pieces, and tied them together with baling twine, along with an overhanging roof board.

Finally they mounted it on a sunny fencepost in the SSE Hillside Garden. Harry provided Mason bee cocoons to release into the garden to pollinate the apple trees when they begin to bloom. The children will place moist clay near the nest when the BOB season begins, which they will use as a sort of mortar to seal each egg along with a heap of tasty pollen into individual chambers. The children loved gently touching the cocoons and imagining the bees cracking out of their "eggs" in the spring warmth. Pollinator Gardens here they come!


The lesson closed with Monika Grunberg's picture book called Sunshine and Pollen; The Life of Mason Bees, all told from a cheerful Mason bee's perspective. After she hatches, warmed by the spring sun, the tiny heroine emerges to smell the delicious nectar and revel in all the colours. "Each flower shows us exactly where to sip. I could hardly wait to dive into one!", she buzzes. "From plants to insects to fruit to seeds and back to plants: this is the Circle of Life."

Here are Ken Hargrove's instructions for getting started with your own Mason Bee project:


1. Choose the type of Mason Bee nest or condo (wooden or plastic nests, or paper tubes, all available at Foxglove Farm & Garden or easily built) and mount it near your gardens at about 6' high, facing southeast where it can get sun.


2. Acquire Mason Bee cocoons (also available at Foxglove or from friends).


3. Get a small cardboard box and place the cocoons inside, cut a couple 3/8" diameter holes in the bottom corners of the box.


4. When the blossoms are out and the temperature is 10-12*C, place the box with the cocoons near your mounted nest box, along with a container of damp, clay soil on the ground nearby (they'll use this to separate the eggs in the nesting tubes).


5. You'll see the bees fly about, and in some weeks the condo tubes will be full and the openings will be sealed with the mud derivative.


6. After late May or early June, you'll notice there's no more activity. Remove the nest box/condo and store it in a cool space like a garage in a sealed tupperware.


7. In early November, carefully remove the cocoons from the condos. Clean them in a light bleach solution or sand, then store them in a sealed, cool place until mid-March, and start again!


Other good resources:

* Background and guidance on Mason Bee Nests by Linda Gilkeson

* Foxglove Farm & Garden on Salt Spring Island sells Mason Bee cocoons and pre-made Mason Bee nests from BeeDiverse, plus guides on how to encourage native pollinators.

* The David Suzuki Foundation has Mason Bee home building instructions and how to enhance habitat for other native pollinators.


This project has been made possible by a GO WILD! grant from the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks!