Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How to Use Mason Bees to Increase Fruit Crop Yields

original photo from photogirl7.1 on flickr via creative commons licensing.

Do you have fruit trees at home? If so, you know that getting help from pollinators in the spring is essential to a great harvest later in the year. With spring just around the corner, it's important to start thinking about these things now!

With all the be die-offs in the news lately, you might be worried about what that means for your fruit trees. Luckily, you can take matters into your own hands with mason bees - a low maintenance, gentle bee breed (they will only sting if you squish them!). You can keep your own pet bees in your property and increase (double? Triple?) Fruit yields at the same time.

My dad and step-mom run Fat Dog Farms and raise mason bees (and sell them, too - for a great price I might add!). Read on to find out more.


Why do you need mason bees?
Besides the minimal cost and upkeep, mason bees are the top pollination specialists. Studies conducted in netted orchards have shown that 250 female mason bees can pollinate apples as effectively as 50,000 honey-bees! Now that’s pollination at its best! These little guys will rarely wander very far from their home and are easy to care for. Mason bees don't make honey; instead they help produce great crops of fruit, berries, and vegetables. Another benefit of housing mason bees is that they also work in cool or rainy weather when honey bees are more likely to take the day off. 

If you have any fears related to being stung, mason bees are a great place to start because they won't sting you. The males do not have a stinger, and the females will only sting if trapped or squeezed. 

Owning and raising your own mason bees will add beauty, activity, and pollination to your yard and garden. We have raised mason bees for 8 years and our crops have tripled in size due to the massive amount of pollination that is taking place at Fat Dog Farms

How many mason bees do you need to get started?
Typically, you will need about 800 – 1,000 bee cocoons per acre. Most home gardeners start by purchasing 5-10 tubes of bees. Each year, you should increase the population by five times!

Life Cycle of a Mason Bee
Female mason bees emerge in early spring and immediately begin to forage for pollen and nectar within about 100 yards of their nests.  They collect from fruit trees, berries, flowers, and vegetables and pack this food into the far end of their nesting hole until they decide there’s enough there to feed a young bee. Then the female backs in, lays an egg and plugs up the cell with mud. This process continues until the bee has filled the entire tube with a series of pollen/nectar/egg cells (typically 6-8 bees per tube). Remarkably, the eggs that are destined to be female are always laid at the back of the nesting tube leaving the male bees to emerge first in spring.

Once the mason bee has completely filled one tube, she will begin filling another one. This pollen-collecting and egg-laying will continue for four to six weeks, and then the bee will die.

Mason bee larvae hatch just a few days after the eggs are laid. They eat on the food that’s been stored in their cell, which usually lasts them about 10 days. They spend the summer developing into new bees and by fall they are fully mature bees in newly spun cocoons still in the same nesting tubes. They hibernate all winter and wait for the signs of spring that will have them emerging in your garden the following spring. In other words, every year you will see the children of the bees you had the previous year. The colony should continue to grow every year as long as they have holes in which to lay their eggs and pollen to feed their young.

How do I get started?
First, you will need a Mason bee house. There are several companies that sell housing units and tubes or you can choose to make them yourself (Check out mason bee houses on Amazon here). We highly recommend that you DO NOT drill holes into a block of wood unless you intend to use a paper liner or tube inserted into each hole. Drilling holes without tube liners can cause the bees to become trapped from debris and they may die.  You need to be able to remove the cocoons in the fall to maintain a large happy colony.

Second, you need a location for your colony. A sheltered location on the outside of your house, barn, shed, or garage that faces south or east is best.

Third, you will need bees! It is recommended to purchase 5-10 tubes of bees depending on the size of your yard and garden. Eventually, you could have approximately 800-1,000 bees per acre, depending on how well you maintain your house(s). (you can buy bees from Fat Dog Farms online!)
Fat Dog Farms ship bees from July – March. They will arrive in their tubes along with a small icepack to keep them from emerging. Once you receive them, please put them in a cool location (a garage or shed are ideal locations).  If you choose to put them in the refrigerator, please make sure to add a moist paper towel to the container holding the bees. IMPORTANT: Do not put the moisture directly on the cocoons, as this will create mold. The moisture will help to keep them from drying out until you are ready to place them outside near their new home. Your new bees will emerge in spring at the first sign of 50+ degree temperatures.


About the Author: 
Michelle Berg is the owner, head gardener and master bee keeper at Fat Dog Farms outside of Portland, OR. You can purchase bees and other items online through the Fat Dog Farms website or in person at their annual plant sale. 


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