Wikipedia explains that the mason bee was named for the way it builds clay nests to lay its eggs. As hive bees suffer from disease and the queens die off, these independent little proletarians become vital to the pollination process.
Blue orchard mason bees hatch around March while apian royalty still snores in hibernation and dreams of warmer weather. These early risers pollinate early flowering plants like fruit trees and heather, so it behooves us to foster their survival. To borrow the phrase: these are the warriors of the working day.
At a bee workshop last year I learned these bees look like fat flies with an iridescent blue sheen and slightly different wings. I suspect I killed a lot of them when they got inside the house due to mistaken identity, and felt very badly until I rationalized that if they were in the house they were fair game. Now at least, I wait for them to stand still so I can have a closer look to see if I can tell the difference. So far they’ve all looked like flies.
When we were shown pictures of the clay-filled holes in the bee houses at the workshop, I realized that the clay-filled hole on the shed door latch that I had scraped out with a screwdriver must have been filled with baby bee eggs, and felt badly again. The bees haven’t returned to the shed and I don’t blame them.
Early this spring I noticed fat “flies” going in and out of a couple of holes by the handle of the greenhouse door, so, just in case they were bees, I didn’t get out the fly-swatter. After a few days the holes filled up and were capped with clay and I had become a bee foster mother. Excited, I marched over to the derelict orchard mason bee house that the previous owner had installed more than 10 years ago and saw that many of the holes were filled with clay. Next March I’ll check to see if these holes have emptied and watch for bees coming and going around it.
When the bees hatch, the males emerge first, then hover around the entrance waiting to mate with their sisters who emerge later. No wonder they all look alike. Insect incest is a bit racy for a family column, but a lot less lonely than slugs that mate with themselves, and just one more reason to be glad you aren’t a gastropod. As for the male bees, having impregnated their sisters they fly off and die somewhere, leaving the females to handle the egg laying, nest building and other heavy lifting. Sometimes it is hard not to anthropomorphise.
But I digress. Perhaps the most important thing actual humans can do to encourage the survival of mason bees is to stop using pesticides and herbicides. Commercially available products like Roundup are obvious killers, but even plant-derived pesticides like rotenone and pyrethrum are deadly, so it’s best to find other methods to grow crops without resorting to these products. Without the bees there are no crops.