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Pollinator Habitat Group

Planning a Bee Highrise
By Peggy B La Point
Posted on 3/1/2021 3:00 AM



Assuming that you have started planning a garden for bees, how about providing a place for them to set up house?   I refer to solitary bees, of course, not a big colony of Honeybees.


As you know, there are two bee kingdoms: social and solitary.  Honeybees are social and defend their hive.  Mason Bees and Leafcutter Bees are native, solitary and gentle bees that over-winter in cocoons and are in great need of places to do that.  We humans like to have everything tidy and in its place, but eliminating old flower stems, old wood and bare ground from our gardens eliminates places that native bees need as nesting sites.  There are hundreds of species of native bees that nest in the ground but need to find a little bare patch.


Mason and Leafcutter bees are two of the many native species that lay their eggs in above-ground holes.  These bees are small, they don’t sting, and they are much better pollinators than Honeybees.  But solitary doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t gregarious, and they are willing to build their single nest in close proximity to other nests. And that makes it simple and fun to provide a little help.


Creating (or buying) a bee house will give native bees their own studio apartments in a little high-rise (or should that be a bee-rise?).  The design of the house can be as simple or elaborate as you desire, as long as it shelters the nests, but the nesting chambers have requirements. You can just drill holes in a block of untreated 4x4, but the tubes can’t be cleaned between seasons.  The best solution is to buy tubes from a store like Wild Birds Unlimited, one of the local nurseries, or order them from Crown Bees.  The tubes can be stacked in any order you like and replaced every year.  You can go high-rent with specially-made wood blocks. They have layers with pre-drilled holes that can be separated for yearly cleaning, and they last for years.  Different species prefer differently sized holes, so a variety is helpful, and all should be at least three inches deep.  Hang your high-rise at eye level (for easy viewing), where it gets morning sun and some shade in the heat of the day.  If you have lots of birds in your yard, the house needs to be an additional three inches deep and have chicken wire or hardware cloth across the front.


If a bee decides she likes the place, she will lay an egg in the back end of a tube, give the egg a ball of pollen to eat and then seal off the egg chamber.  The process repeats until she has laid as many eggs as possible, sometimes filling the tube.  Mason bees are so called because they seal up the egg chamber with mud.  Leaf-cutter bees cut a little half-circle from the edge of a tender leaf, roll it into a tube to line the egg chamber. 


Both Mason and Leafcutter bees are active based on air temperature and daylight.  Masons are active from about March through May. They need the early blooming plants like fruit and nut trees, and there needs to be a source of non-sandy mud nearby. Leafcutters emerge in June and are active into September. They like meadows and flower gardens and need thin, delicate leaves (like roses or lilacs) nearby. (I won’t forget the day I saw a little half-moon cut from the edge of an Evening Primrose blossom and thought, “She wrapped her egg in a bright yellow blanket”).


Obviously, it is important to know when to clean out or change nest tubes, so a bit of research and observation is necessary.  Some people move the tubes to a safe place over the winter to protect the pupae from predatory wasps, but you can decide how involved you become in the process.  (Bees have been at this successfully for millions of years).  Primarily, you just have to be sure the bees have emerged before you change the tubes. 


The main point is that it is fun and easy to lend these wonderful little animals a hand, and extremely rewarding to see them working over the garden.  I highly recommend an excellent book on the subject: “Mason Bee Revolution, How the Hardest Working Bee Can Save the World One Backyard at a Time”, by Dave Hunter and Jill Lightner. 

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