Pollinators are the bees knees

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Dr. Janette Simon shared her passion for pollinators at a recent Guttenberg Rotary Club meeting. Others interested in pollinator preservation may attend the free May 13 Music and Monarchs Festival in Elkader. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

“We’re concerned about our monarchs, our honeybees, and the collapse of colonies – with good reason. One in every three bites of food we eat is because of a pollinator,” said Dr. Janette Simon during a presentation she gave at a recent Guttenberg Rotary Club meeting. 

Simon has always had an interest in honeybees, but couldn’t commit the time to caring for hives. Instead, she started a colony of mason bees in a small bee house she purchased in Guttenberg. The first year she put the bee house outside, she didn’t see any activity. During the second year, she noticed it being used. “I was in my garden one day and I saw a little black bee going in. At the end of the year, I picked the house up and it was full of mud. So I thought I should become more learned about my bees,” she smiled.

The creatures living in Simon’s bee house are mason bees, among the easiest to raise of the 4,000 bee species in North America. Mason bees are solitary, black bees that can be mistaken for flies by the untrained eye. They are productive pollinators and, unlike honeybees, are actually native to North America. While honeybees must wet pollen to keep it stuck to their bodies, female mason bees carry dry pollen on their hairy abdomens, then scrape the pollen off in nesting holes. Because mason bees keep pollen dry, it falls off easily as the bees move between flowers – which makes for very efficient pollinating. 

Mason bees rarely sting because they have no hive to protect. Other advantages of living alone include avoiding illness, fungus and mites that can take out an entire colony. “They’re very peaceful bees; great to have around kids and pets,” said Simon. Each bee claims a small tube (5/16 of an inch being the ideal diameter) in the bee house and lays her eggs inside, lining the tube with pollen for the young bees. Most of the bee’s life, it turns out, will be lived inside that tube. 

Like butterflies, bees change from egg to larva to pupa before taking the adult form we recognize. The adult stage lasts just one month. The first three stages of life take place inside the nest. Females, which emerge from fertilized eggs, hatch in the innermost part of the tube, while males hatch from unfertilized eggs nearest the opening. Larva grow by consuming the food left in the tube by their mother bee. After months in the dormant pupa stage, the bees emerge fully-grown. 

“A mason bee will come out of its cocoon in the spring, when the weather is above 55 degrees consistently,” Simon explained. “Males emerge first because they’re at the front end of the tube, where they’re more likely to be eaten by wasps and woodpeckers. Females are bigger and are back in the nest further – they come out of the holes a few days after the males.” 

As soon as they emerge from the mud-packed tubes that give them their name, the bees get to work. “A mason bee does the pollination work of 100 honeybees in a single month of adulthood,” said Simon. “A female bee can lay up to 60 eggs in her short month, about two a day. They don’t usually travel very far from their nests, so between the back and forth, they pollinate like crazy.” 

Mason bees are sometimes called orchard bees because their adult stage usually coincides with the first plants to bloom – often fruit and nut trees – are blooming. Bee houses should be placed about five feet from the ground and within 10-20 feet of whatever plants will be first in the yard to bloom. The house should face east or south and should have an overhang on the front to protect from driving rain. Mason bee keepers can water a small mud patch in their yards during the month the adults are present to save bees from making the mud themselves to pack their holes. “We want them to spend more time pollinating and laying eggs than making mud,” Simon pointed out. 

Without human interference, mason bees build their nests in stumps and crevices. Bee houses can be drilled into a log six inches deep with a 5/16-inch diameter bit (a larger hole increases the likelihood that a wasp can enter and eat the young bees). 

Simon stores her bee house in an unheated shed during the winter to protect it from predators and early frost. The house she uses requires no cleaning, but some mason bee starter kits include liners that can be removed from the back side of the house. Cocoons can be purchased online, but Simon just placed her bee house outside in the spring and mason bees eventually found it. “Because they stay put, it’s easy to expand quickly. If you put out another house, you’d have more bees,” she said. 

Bolstering the bee population on a small scale is one thing, but according to the USDA, the annual value of crops pollinated by wild, native bees in the United States is estimated at $3 billion. Native bees have declined due to habitat loss and use of pesticides, among other factors, while managed colonies of European honeybees have suffered a 50 percent decline in recent decades.

Recent research has shown that wild native bees can contribute substantially to crop pollination on farms where their needs are met. Pat Schaefers, district conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Elkader, noted that the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can help landowners integrate plantings that attract more bees with advice, cost-share, and even annual payments. “These programs are more for agricultural land, but if somebody has an acreage with a fair amount of size, there are things we can do to help,” Schaefers told The Press. 

So whether you have a yard or an acre, solitary bees are an easy way to keep pollination progressing.

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