You’re not alone if you noticed that your plum trees didn’t bear much fruit last summer.
That’s because we experienced a phenological mismatch last spring that killed off mason bees and prevented pollination.
Thyra McKelvie is Bainbridge Island’s solitary bee expert and educator who is spreading the word about the benefits of native mason bees. As the pollination program manager for Rent Mason Bees, she said last year’s weather greatly impacted agriculture.
“Last spring, the mason bees emerged, blooms were out, and the weather froze. Then the bees died because there was no food for them; then there was no fruit in the summer because there was no pollination.”
With deep freezes and heat waves, temperatures threw off plant bloom timing.
“Last year, we got a lot of calls from gardeners saying their Asian plum tree was blooming. We’d send our bees, and the trees would get pollinated, then everything would freeze. We had the same issue with our East Coast customers. We sent them bees, they released their bees on these two weeks of gorgeous weather, and then they got four feet of snow.”
McKelvie expects that it’ll get worse as our climate and weather change, but we can improve our environment by hosting and releasing mason bees and leafcutter bees in our backyards and gardens.
Rent Mason Bees is the largest provider of solitary bees for farmers in the country. Last year, they processed 3 million mason bee cocoons and 40 million leafcutter bees.
Farmers are now embracing solitary bees as part of their pollination routine because they are better pollinators than honey bees; they can fly in cooler temperatures and create a greater return on yield. Whereas honey bees are expensive, hives must be moved around, and honey bees are suffering colony decline.
“Our thing is to make sure we’re putting healthy bees back out into our habitat and making sure people understand the importance of it; if you’re going to care for bees, do it properly,” McKelvie said.
Solitary bees are easy to care for, and they don’t sting. Hang the bee box in the morning sun and provide a clay source nearby.
Bainbridge Island is an ideal habitat for solitary bees because the temperatures are perfect, “We’re not too hot, or not too cool, and we have madrona trees and big leaf maples which are huge pollinator trees. There’s so much food for our little bees,” said McKelvie who manages a special bee pick up service for islanders who host bees in their yards and gardens.
Mason bees are spring pollinators that emerge from cocoons when temperatures reach 55 degrees. They construct mud nests in holes found in nature or in bee boxes hung in gardens. Females build a series of mud chambers to protect an egg with a pollen loaf. When the larva hatches, it consumes the food, spins a silk cocoon, and forms a pupa. The following spring, the adult emerges and lives up to six weeks, and each female lays about 15 eggs in her lifetime.
Leafcutter bees emerge in summer after temperatures reach 75 degrees and live up to six weeks. When the female finds a nesting place, she’ll cut pieces of leaves to make a “sleeping bag” to surround each egg and a pollen loaf. The leafcutter larva does not weave a cocoon and emerges as an adult bee the following summer.
Mason and leafcutter bees use sticky hairs on their abdomens to collect pollen when they “belly-flop” onto 2,000 blossoms a day. “They’re Mother Nature’s Best pollinators,” McKelvie said. The bees can collect pollen from any blooming plant, which produces: more product, encourages plants to grow more vital and provide cleaner air, feeds other wildlife, and boosts the overall health of our ecosystems. “Three to five bees can pollinate an entire apple tree.”
To learn how to rent your solitary bees, go to rentmasonbees.com.
Help bees thrive
● Participate in “No Mow May.” Don’t mow dandelions; leave them for the bees.
● Hang a solitary bee house in the morning sun. Avoid bee boxes made with bamboo sticks that attract predators that kill the bees. Burn old boxes to destroy predators and debris.
● Offer mud or clay within 50 feet of the bee box for mason bees to build nesting areas.