By Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to attract lots of mason bees to pollinate your garden? We’ve got the best tips and tricks for how to roll out the red carpet for these little bees.
If you’ve never heard of mason bees, suffice it to say that one mason bee does the work of 100 honeybees when it comes to pollination. That’s because of differences in the way they pollinate. While honeybees make little packages of pollen that they affix to their back legs, mason bees carry pollen all over their fuzzy little bodies, so they pollinate every flower they stop at. It just makes sense to do all you can to get these efficient pollinators to visit your garden, and we’re ready to show you how to do just that.
Choosing the location for a bee house is one of the most vital things you can do to make sure mason bees will come to visit your garden. A house in a good location will attract mason bees to settle in on your property. A carefully placed bee house should be out of the reach of water. It should also allow sunlight to filter into the nest, especially at morning.
If you elevate your bee nest four to seven feet, it helps prevent predators from accessing the nest. Predators are a danger both to adult bees and to their brood. Some predators will destroy the nest entirely. You can further protect your bee house from predators that eat the adult insects, like birds, by setting up a mesh enclosure around your mason bee house.
In wintertime, a bee house should be located somewhere that’s not too exposed to winter weather—wind and cold. Positioning your nest on the side of a fence, building, or tree on the east or south side will make sure your mason bees benefit from warm morning sun and also have protection from wind and rain. Bees need warmth in order to be able to fly, and they need dry nesting tunnels to be able to breed.
Diseases and pests are the other major elements that can endanger a mason bee population. If you have a mason bee house or nest on your property, inspect it regularly so you’ll notice at the first sign of disease or infestation. Maintaining a clean bee house by tidying regularly and washing the cocoons will help prevent disease and infestation from getting a foothold.
Also, placing the bee house within 50 feet of an area of wet mud (as described in the next section) will help bees find what they need to build their nests. If you can also place it within 300 feet of spring-blooming plants and trees, it will be easy for your mason bees to forage for food.
Mason bees need mud to build their nests, whether you’ve provided them with a mason bee house or they’re building their own homes. Keep an open area of wet mud within 50 feet of where you want the mason bees to nest. Once they decide to take up residence, they’ll be able to settle in quicker than if they needed to find their own mud.
The simplest way to provide your mason bees with some mud is to dig a hole in the ground and then line it with polythene paper or another waterproof substance. Once the liner is in place, replace the soil you dug back into the hole, adding water to make mud. The ideal consistency of mud for mason bees is wet throughout the hole.
You can make your mud even better for the bees by purchasing a mud mix. You can find mud mixes online from stores that sell beekeeping supplies. You may even be able to find a mud mix especially for mason bees. Follow the directions that the manufacturer provides to use these mud mixes.
Unlike some bees that live in hives, mason bees live in nests. You can provide them with nesting areas or supplies they use in building to make your garden an attractive place to these bees. You can either build your own nest or purchase one. A commercially made mason bee house tends to last longer in the elements than homemade versions.
You can make your own mason bee houses out of materials like wood, thick paper straws, or hollow reeds. Wooden nest blocks are easy to make.
First, you need a non-treated block of wood. It’s important for the block to be untreated because some treatments can be detrimental to the bees you want to attract.
Use a sharp drill bit to make about 20 holes that are five sixteenths of an inch wide. The holes should be six inches deep. The depth of the holes is very important. You need to make sure the holes are at least six inches deep but do not go all the way through the block of wood.
This is because the mason bees will lay female eggs in the back of the tunnel and males in the front, to protect the females that will eventually be breeding from predators like woodpeckers. Mason bees always lay more male eggs than female eggs, so the six-inch holes for nesting allow the bee to lay more female eggs, which will boost the bee population for the following year.
Wooden nest blocks like these must be removed and replaced after a few years. Alternatively, you can use an emergence box, which will let you remove and clean the blocks without disturbing the bees developing inside.
If you don’t want to make your own mason bee nest box, there are plenty you can purchase from garden centers or online beekeeping suppliers. Some people use bundles of reeds or paper tubes, as well as stackable wood nesting trays, as areas where bees can nest. All three of these options will let you remove the cocoons to inspect and wash them during the fall. Compared to the nesting box, these wooden trays or paper tubes are much easier to clean or replace each year than the homemade nesting box is, and they’ll help you minimize the effect of disease or infestation as well.
In autumn when the weather starts to get chilly, take down all your nest boxes and find a place for them in a protected shed or a dark, unheated garage. Before flowers and trees start to bloom in the spring, replace the cocoons from the places where you gathered them in fall. You’ll start to see bees moving in and out of nesting areas and spackling holes with mud once the days warm up to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bees need water in order to build their muddy nests, so set up a water feature within 50 feet of their nest. This can be as substantial as a fountain or can simply be a birdbath—anything that will provide the bees with a clean water source. Keeping all the resources that mason bees need near their nesting areas is the best way to convince the bees to settle in and make your garden their home. Whatever water feature you choose, you’ll need to place some rocks in it to give bees a place to land near the water.
The final component here is an important one: bees need a nearby source of pollen. But don’t think that just any flowers will do the trick. There are certain types of flowers that are better for attracting mason bees than others.
Mason bees love flowers that have a single row of petals the best. When flowers have more than one row of petals, it can keep the bees from reaching the pollen.
Composite flowers (members of the daisy family) that have open petals are the very best options you can provide for mason bees. Flowers from the Ericaceae family are also good bets, including asters, alyssum, black-eyed Susans, and poppies.
Hyacinth is also a good bet for attracting mason bees in the spring. In summer, bee balm takes the spotlight. Native plants are always a good bet. Other plants that will attract mason bees include blueberries, cherries, dogwood, plums, poplars, and willows.
The best way to plant flowers in order to attract mason bees is in a large swath of blooming flowers. When flowers grow close together, bees know their foraging will be easier. Bees can both smell and see the flowers better when they’re planted in a large area close together. Some gardeners choose to plant just one type in a broad stripe, while others mix up their bee-attracting flowers so they’re all available in one spot.
You can mix and match the tips from this article to make your own plan for attracting bees to your home. Utilize as many of the tips as you can conveniently. Remember that mason bees are only buzzing from March to May (with some variation due to climate and species), so that’s the time when you’ll want flowers you plant for the bees to be blooming. You should also strive to set up your nesting boxes or supplies, water feature, and mud zone before they’re needed in March. Soon you’ll have busy visitors buzzing all around your flowers and plants.