Keen on Mason Bees

And now boys and girls, it is time for Uncle Paul to tell you about the birds and the bees. Or, more accurately, I want to focus on the flowers and the bees.  And, even more accurately:  Flower sex.  The kinky, messy life of flower sex complete with bestiality.   That’s right, those flowers “do it” with all sorts of insects and bugs.  Especially bees.

The innocent bee is focused on gathering nectar.  Food.  Completely oblivious to the perversions of the flower – sneaking its reproductive genetic …. stuff …. onto the unsuspecting bee.  It’s as if it is calling out “Here, little bee.  I have some candy for you.  Come on over here to my brightly colored custom conversion van and I’ll give you some!”   And as the bee takes the candy, the flower sticks its reproductive signature (pollen) on the unsuspecting bee.

At least, that’s the story for the honey bee(*).

The mason bee totally knows what’s going on.  And is in to it.  In fact, the mason bee really isn’t into nectar all that much.   The mason bee just pretends to like nectar.  The mason bee wants the pollen.  The mason bee will eat the pollen.

And while the honey bee efficiently harvests all of the candy from each brightly colored conversion van, the mason bee focuses on how many vans one bee can “do” in a day.  Thus leaving the vans with candy for future “guests”.

I suspect that the flowers “love” mason bees more than honey bees.  After all, one mason bee can pollinate as many flowers as a hundred honey bees.

And now for a video of all this.  Which, I suppose, is technically “porn”.

(*) = actually, the honey bees do take some pollen too.   The giant doofus in overalls that wrote this seems to find pleasure in perverted exaggeration.

Allow me to introduce one of the party animals of bee world — the mason bee.  These little bees use a pollination technique that looks a hell of a lot like a belly flop.  Not real graceful, but effective.  After the TTTHHHUUmmpp! crashing haphazardly into the flower, these bees take a few broad stokes through the pollen.  Almost rooting through it. Then, they are off to the next party.

Before we really get the party started…a few bee basics.

All bees are either social or solitary.  Social bees, like the honey bee, are the ones we are probably most familiar with.  These social bees have very specific jobs.  There is just one queen, but there are also soldiers, comb builders, cell cleaners, pollen packers, forgers, nectar gatherers and receivers, drones — all in all, there are about 15 to 20 specific duties.

However, solitary bees, like the mason bee, don’t have specialized jobs.  Just boy bees and girl bees.  The boy bees live for about two weeks and their only job is to find and mate with the girl bees.  Girl bees live for about six to eight weeks because they have that whole “propagation-of-an-entire-species” thing they have to do.  Their job is to find a hollow tube and add pollen, a bee egg, some mud, and repeat until dead. During their lifetime they can lay 15 – 20 eggs.

Photograph by Steven Feil

A mason bee is a ‘cavity nesting bee’.  There are more than 130 species of ‘hole-nesting’ mason bees in North America.  They get their name from the method in which they pack their wee bee babies in those little tubes.  Mason bees use mud, resin, leaf bits, or even pebbles to seal the tubes.  They overwinter as adults.  Each species has their own heat queues, emerging only after a certain temperature is reached.  This means that they are ready to get their groove on as soon as the mercury rises.

The reason I think these party animal bees are pretty amazing? A single mason bee will slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am about 2,000 flowers a day. That is some serious pollination, baby.

So how do we contribute to the delinquency of the mason bee? If you want to encourage a few more of these bees in your yard here are some ideas.

A wide variety of yummy bee food will attract and keep them near your yard.  Planting things such as aster, daisy, sunflower, and dandelion provide the bees with food.  And nobody likes to eat the same thing every single day — give them a variety of things to choose from.

For habitat, leaving out a dry brush pile will create space for these hard partying insects. Empty tubes and reeds in various diameters give the female bees a place to lay her eggs.  For those of you who insist on nothing but the best for your mason bee buddies check out Dave Hunter at Crown Bees.

Mason bees are a fairly simple bee to assist in propagation.  100 mason bees, well taken care of, should double or triple in population each year.  And that would be some good news for a change on the bee front.

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