Looking for a unique present for a gardener or a nature lover? Purchase some mason bees. Unlike honey bees that are sold in either as hives, or nuclear packages, mason bees are sold as cocoons. The packages of cocoons are shipped between November and March 1st depending on where they are purchased. They are to be kept cool in the fridge until the spring when temperatures do not dip below minus 10. Typically this is March to April. Mason bees like other native bees are active in cooler temperatures than honey bees.
To improve the bees chance of survival either purchase or make a bee house. Bee houses come in a variety of shapes and sizes each with holes or tubes. Making the house itself is as simple as drilling a number of 5/16 inch holes into firewood making sure the drill bit does not exit the other side. As mason bees are solitary creatures each bee will require their own hole or tube in which to lay eggs.
Place the bee house, crafted or boughten, in an out of the way place that requires the morning sun. Height of the nest is not important but it should not swing in the breeze
When the weather warms, take the package of cocoons out of the fridge and place them near the bee house.
Over time, the bees will emerge starting with the males then the females. Males will head off to forage and the females will scout around for the perfect nest. Once a nesting site is chosen the female bees release a scent that attracts the males. They mate and the female will lay eggs. She will then spend her time gathering and storing pollen that will feed the larva once the eggs hatch.
By the end of June or early July, the female bees will have gathered and stored enough pollen for the larva to survive. At this time their short life cycle is complete.
The nests can be left outside but there is a chance that the growing larva will become another’s lunch. Taking the nest down and placing it on its back in a safe location helps keep the eggs and larva safe from predators.
Once the cocoons are formed they can be taken out and stored in a cool place until next spring when the cycle begins again.
It is best to replace the tubes in the house yearly to ensure that diseases are not present.
Adding mason bees to the yard increases the yield of fruit and early flowering vegetables as mason bees are excellent pollinators.
It is possible to purchase mason bees through a number of online companies and some of the larger greenhouses. Cocoons are alive but dormant when they are shipped. Choose a company that provides fast or cool shipping to keep the cocoons in a dormant state until the weather is suitable for them to be released.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturist that has gardened in central Alberta for over 30 years.