Credit: Waldemar Brandt, Unsplash
In recent years, concerns have been mounting over the environmental impacts of pollinator decline, giving rise to focused conservation efforts by average families to protect, enhance and foster agricultural pollination through beekeeping.
Keeping native non-stinging mason bees — even in urban spaces — is a surprisingly easy way to help the environment, and it’s also an inexpensive and educational project for kids. The best news is that these hyperefficient pollinators do wonders for fruit crops and gardens!
In North America, there are about 140 different mason bee species — with about 200 species worldwide. Osmia lignaria, referred to as the orchard mason bee or blue orchard bee, is the most common species found in the Pacific Northwest. Orchard mason bees look very similar to common house flies, with black bodies and a dark blue iridescent sheen.
Unlike garden-variety honeybees, mason bees are nonsocial creatures that nest in holes rather than in a hive with a queen. Mason bees work alone, but like to nest in groups when possible; there is no cooperation concerning the nest’s construction or the rearing of the brood, and therefore, no aggression issues!
Mason bees gained their name from the way that the females protect their eggs: They’ll form an egg chamber in the deepest part of their hole and seal it with mud, repeating the process until the hole is full of eggs.
Known for being solitary, hard workers, mason bees are only active for about 8–10 weeks in the spring, typically from mid-March until the end of May or early June (the best time for pollinating fruit trees and berries). The bees will then hibernate for about 10 months and later emerge with great energy for more pollination duty.
Top 10 Mason Beekeeping Tips for Families
Don’t be afraid. Male mason bees don’t have stingers, and, because all of the females are fertile, they’re not aggressive. It’s still possible to get stung — female mason bees have stingers, but they will only sting if they get trapped or squeezed — but the sting is more akin to a mosquito bite than the typical bee sting.
Pollen is important. If there isn’t enough pollen in your yard, mason bees will move on to other areas. Check out Rent Mason Bees for a full list of common pollen-producing plants that work well.
Keeping nesting boxes. South-facing garage, house or garden shed walls are ideal areas for establishing your nesting boxes. Families will also want to make sure that food is available within about 300 feet of the nest — this is as far as the bees will travel. Make a note of all of the plants on the list that you see in this area, and remember: These bees won’t stop at your property line — they’ll go across the street or into a neighbor’s yard for pollen if they need to.
Mud is a must. Since female mason bees require mud for their eggs, it’s important to have open ground (without grass or bark covering) nearby. Families can also make a “mud pie,” with the soil moist but not soupy. Your little ones might be the right “chefs” for this project!
Bees are weak when they first emerge from hibernation, so it’s best not to keep the mud pie directly under the nest (they could fall in).
Choosing nesting materials. Pull-apart wooden blocks, cardboard with paper lining, drilled blocks and homemade paper tubes can all work well for nesting. Pull-apart wooden blocks can be a great material since they’re porous (allowing moisture to escape), and they’re easy to clean, sanitize and reuse.
Paper products can be hard to use due to the Northwest’s damp climate, but they’re a great project for kids to make on their own. New drilled blocks must be made each year, as they can get infected with microscopic pests and cannot be cleaned.
Here's a tutorial for helping kids make paper mason bee tubes.
Observing your bees. Mason bees are fascinating to watch; they can be educational for kids in addition to being eco-friendly. Here are some fun things that kids can observe about their small and industrious new friends:
- Note pollen on the female as she returns to the nest. (A clean belly means that she has mud to take home.)
- When the female is adding her final mud plug, she’ll go around and around the hole’s opening as she works to close the egg chamber.
- Using a flashlight at night or in the early morning, you can see the bees at rest in the front of their holes, with their eyes looking out at you.
- Watch your mason bees as they work on blossoms in the yard, and notice which plants they like to frequent.
- Look for the antennae that distinguish them from flies.
- Learn to distinguish the males from the females by spotting the white hair on the males’ heads.
Be on guard for predators. Robins, crows, starlings and woodpeckers prey on adult mason bees as they emerge from their nests. The bees are especially vulnerable in the early morning when they bask in the sun to warm up enough to fly, or while they’re out in the open gathering mud.
For the birds, these sweet little bees are like candy — especially if they find a nesting block that happens to be filled with a lot of bees. The best way to avoid predators is to store the nest in the garage or shed at the end of the active period. If you’re using a paper product and have lots of squirrels, chicken wire can be added around the box to prevent them from pulling the tubes out and devouring the contents.
Setting your materials out in the spring. Nesting units need to be protected from rain and wind. Keeping them mounted with the cavities tilting slightly down will prevent rainwater from entering and creating harmful mold. Securing the nesting units will also prevent movement that could dislodge eggs or young larvae. The space left may be a mere three-eighths of an inch, but the babies are too weak to crawl back in.
Nesting materials need to be set out before nesting begins (mid- to late March), since the females lay the most eggs in the beginning of the season. However, it’s also important to note that if the materials are set out too early, the progeny could be mostly males.
Placing the nesting units on the south-facing side of the building is key; the bees need to warm up to 80 degrees for their wings to function. Mason bees’ black bodies can soak up rays even when it’s only 58–64 degrees outside, making exposure to direct sunlight very important.
Caring for your bees. Just like caring for a fish tank, the bees and nesting materials need to be cleaned each fall, or families could risk losing their colony. Pests, mites and chalkbrood disease (caused by a fungus) can be greatly reduced by opening and sanitizing the nesting material each October.
For families that are concerned with cleaning their materials properly, renting mason bees might be the perfect solution — you can enjoy them throughout the spring and then simply return them once they go into hibernation! Rent Mason Bees offers complete rental kits, cleans the cocoons and stores the bees over the winter for you, making it very easy to enjoy the benefits of keeping bees.
Attracting a variety of pollinators. Fruit trees are not required in order for you to be a beekeeper; plant for all seasons, and not just for March–June. Native wildflowers with colors such as blue, purple and yellow (clover, dandelions) are recommended, along with one of the best sources for pollen: big-leaf maples.
Editor's note: This article was originally published years ago and has been updated for 2020.
The ABCs of Beekeeping
Looking for a good children’s book about beekeeping? Flip through the beautifully illustrated “Bees in the City” (by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy) for a sweet take on urban beekeeping and an empowering message of how one small person can make a positive impact. Recommended for ages 4–8.