I've watched my fruit trees in full blossom to see what was pollinating them and in 10 minutes counted only 1 or 2 honeybees; poor pollination to say the least. Poor bee pollination means a poor crop.
Wild honeybees are in peril. Two blood-sucking mites; Varroa Jacabsoni and Acarpis Woodi have reportedly killed off 50 to 90% of the wild honeybee population in many areas, curtailing bee pollination accordingly. This is why Blue Orchard Mason bees are so helpful as crop and orchard pollinators.
Scientists with Agricultural Research U.S.D.A have found that Blue Orchard Mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are excellent pollinators of spring crops. They state "Blue Orchard Mason bees have a preference for foraging on fruit tree flowers. The Mason Bee's superior pollinating efficacy and its ability to forage under cool and cloudy weather consistently provides adequate fruit tree pollination."
Successful pollination with Blue Orchard Mason bees does not require a large population of bees. Home orchards of a few dozen trees can be adequately pollinated with around 50 bees. A single, fully colonized 50-hole nest will usually be enough to pollinate a typical yard of bushes and trees. If you don’t have natural Mason bee nesting sites on your property you can attract the bees with man-made bee houses like our easy to maintain Mason bee homes.
Size and physical characteristics- the Blue Orchard Mason bee is a bit smaller than a honeybee, is a shiny, metallic dark blue colour and has two sets of wings. The females are larger than males and have hairs on the underside of the abdomen for carrying pollen. Males have longer antennae and a tuft of light colored hair on the face.
Mason Bees, active in the early Spring, are well adapted to fly under poorer weather conditions than most other bees. They will forage under overcast skies at temperatures as low as 54 degrees Fahrenheit. In good weather they also start the day early and end late, making them very efficient pollinators.
Mason Bees are native to almost the entire continental USA and Southern Canada. Their natural habitat is hollow cavities found in fissured tree bark, holes made by tree-eating grubs, woodpecker holes, beetle holes or any naturally occurring hole of the right size.
Very efficient pollinators, Blue Orchard Mason Bees work directly upon the reproductive structures of the blossoms, collecting nectar and pollen simultaneously. The female Mason bee takes nectar with her tongue while vigorously shaking the anthers with her bottom, rear and middle legs to collect the pollen.
It takes about 75 flower visits to gather a full load, and an average of 25 loads for an average pollen wad. The female Orchard bee completes about one cell a day, so that means she visits about 1875 blossoms a day! She goes into the nesting cell in the bee house head first to regurgitate the nectar then backs out, turns around and backs in to deposit the pollen. The last load for the cell is nectar only, to which she attaches the egg. The egg hatches in about a week. There are 5 larval stages and it is the second stage that starts using the pollen wad for food. The developing larva will cocoon in the 5th stage and pupate in late summer. It then takes about a month to metamorphose to an adult bee, which will then go dormant until the following spring.
Extra care must be taken that the bee house is secure and not jarred during the larval stages because if the bee larvae are knocked off the pollen wad they will starve. The female Mason bee allows about 3/4 of an inch of the hole for the new bee to develop in, at which point she constructs a mud wall to seal the chamber. She then starts collecting pollen and nectar again for the next egg. She continues this procedure until the hole is filled. In her lifetime a female Blue Mason Orchard bee can lay 30 to 35 eggs. The female Mason bee is very wise; she lays the females at the back of the hole and the males towards the front. In the event of predator attacks (Woodpeckers being notorious) the males are sacrificed first, hopefully leaving the females to reproduce next year.
In the Spring, males emerge first and wait for the females to leave the nest, generally a few days after the males. Shortly after mating the female gets to work gathering pollen for the next generation of Blue Orchard Mason bees. The male Mason bees also visit flowers but only to get nectar for their own consumption. Mason bees are not frightened by people; so grab a chair and coffee and enjoy a close-up view as these efficient pollinators go about their busy day.
By providing man-made Mason bee homes you can build up a large population starting with a few purchased bees or even by attracting wild Mason Bees in your neighborhood. I've found I get 2.5 to 3 times increase in my Mason bees each year. Some bees just naturally wander away to pollinate other areas so you help your neighbors when you help yourself with natural bee pollination.
The placement of the Bee house is an important consideration in successful bee propagation. You should place the bee houses as close as possible to the area needing pollinating. The bees like a warm, dry place protected from the wind for their nests. Under the eve on the Southeast side of a house, barn, shed or some solid structure that receives the sun to warm them up is best. However I have had success when firmly attaching the Mason bee homes to a fence post. Morning sun is important; it gets them warmed up, and out pollinating earlier in the season and when they hatch earlier each day.
Orchard bees need mud! Blue Mason Bees need a source of mud nearby for sealing the brood chambers. If your area is dry you can make a small mud source by digging a shallow hole, lining it with plastic then filling it with sticky mud and keeping it moist. Easily done by using a milk jug or some such container with a small hole to allow water to drip into your mud pit. You don't want standing water so a drainage hole at the low point of the plastic liner is a good idea. If you notice birds picking off your Mason Bees, cover the hole with chicken wire.
If you purchase bees make sure they are inspected, clean and from a similar climate to your own. This is very important. Bringing Mason bees from a different climatic region can present problems in two ways. Firstly, Blue Orchard Mason bees from lower latitudes (e.g. south Texas, which fly February to March) develop more slowly as they have a longer pre-pupal stages and require temperatures of at least 75 degrees to develop. If you transplant them to a cooler area some bees will fail to reach maturity. If you move Orchard Mason bees from higher latitudes (e.g. southern Canada, which fly April to May) to a warmer region they will mature before ambient temperatures start to decline and will have to use up body fat reserves until temperatures drop enough so they can enter hibernation. They will now be in a depleted state and may starve over winter or emerge in a weakened condition come spring.