When a habitat conservation plan is developed for a farm or ranch, it usually calls for native plant restoration, invasive species removal, waterway protection, and erosion control. We need to extend this focus to include helping native bees because they’re just as vital to a healthy habitat. Doing so doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. In fact, raising native bees can help farmers and ranchers make more money, while doing less work.
Two summers ago, the news was reporting that one-third of our honey bees had died in the past year. Some sources, like Bee Informed Partnership, were reporting that the number was as high as 40%.
It alarmed me, but it worried me even more that I was hearing a different story from my local beekeeper friends. They said they were losing about half of their colonies each year. Others across the country were saying the same thing. I started to wonder -- Could the problem be much worse than we thought?
I had never raised honey bees before, but my friends were saying it came down to several problems. On a local level, their queens were disappearing without reason, and weren’t being sold with enough sperm to grow a sizable colony. On a commercial level, large companies were overworking their bees and moving them from place-to-place. This caused them to be incredibly susceptible to disease and parasites.
Surely, there was another way to help. As I thought about it, I realized a solution might already live in my backyard. My family had raised mason bees for years, and never experienced a single problem.
In 2013, my family needed something to pollinate our apricot trees. It was early spring, and honey bees were still dormant. We researched and learned that a native bee, known as the mason bee, was already out. All we needed to do to attract them to our yard was provide a house for them. Then, they’d move in, and take care of themselves. So, we built a house by drilling holes into a cedar block, and hung it outside. We thought that it would take several weeks for them to find it, but they started moving in the same day.
Mason bees are solitary bees, so they don’t have any reason to sting. Because of this, we were able to watch up close as they laid eggs inside each hole, and sealed them with mud to protect the eggs. Then, the next spring, we watched the baby bees dig their way out and start pollinating our garden.
I decided that mason bees would be the perfect bee to educate others about because anyone can raise them-- even kids and people with allergies. Plus, their incredible pollinating abilities could help make up for the loss of honey bees. According to Backyard Bees, honey bees successfully pollinate 5% of the flowers they visit, but mason bees successfully pollinate up to 95% of the flowers they visit.
I developed this project, Build for Bees, to share this knowledge with my community. I lead workshops to teach others how to build mason bee houses out of recycled mugs and compostable straws. Two years later, my project has built 245 mason bee houses, which can support hundreds of thousands of mason bees.
While this is a project I designed for backyard implementation, it’s something that can easily be scaled up for farms and ranches. Just build a larger house, and install several per acre. The Journal of Economic Entomology suggests building eight mason bee houses per acre.
Mason bees are well-suited to the busy lifestyle of farmers and ranchers because they don’t require much maintenance. According to the Journal of Economic Entomology, each mason bee house only requires 1.17 hours of maintenance per year--and this is work that can easily be done in the off-season. Once a mason bee house is installed, the bees take care of themselves.This is in vast contrast to honey bees, which require frequent attention, especially given all the diseases and parasites that they’re prone to.
According to Lewis County Beekeepers, it takes six mason bees to do the work of 10,000 honey bees. This increased pollination rate leads to larger harvests, which means more food to sell and more food for livestock. Both of these translate into increased profits.
In a study conducted by the Journal of Economic Entomology, increasing the number of mason bees was found to increase average net profits by $2,400 per acre. The same study found that the best way to increase a mason bee population is to simply build more houses for the existing bees.
So, the cost of raising mason bees really comes down to how fancy you choose to make your mason bee house. Build with scrap materials that you have on hand, and your mason bee house will be free.
Pollinating with mason bees isn’t a new idea. In fact, according to the Penn State Tree Fruit Production Guide, mason bees have been used to pollinate apple trees in Japan for over 80 years. In California, almond farmers have been experimenting with mason bees, and have seen great success. So have blueberry growers in Maine and raspberry growers in Oregon.
We should encourage farmers and ranchers to include mason bees in their habitat conservation plans. Supporting these native bees will create economic opportunity, while protecting a species that native plants depend upon for pollination.
“Benefits of Raising Mason Bees.” Lewis County Beekeepers, 2012, lewiscountybeekeepers.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Benefits_of_Raising_Mason_Bees.357132759.pdf. Accessed 28 Mar. 2020.
Biddinger, PH.D., Dave. Penn State Tree Fruit Production Guide 2014-2015. Pennsylvania State University, 2018.
Bruckner, Selina, et al. “2018-2019 Honey Bee Colony Losses in the United States: Preliminary Results.” Bee Informed Partnership, 2019.
Koh, Insu, et al. “Ecology and Economics of Using Native Managed Bees for Almond Pollination.” Journal of Economic Entomology, vol. 111, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 16–25., doi:10.1093/jee/tox318.
Sartell, Jennifer. “6 Amazing Facts About Mason Bees Keeping Backyard Bees.” Keeping Backyard Bees, Ogden Publications, Inc., 23 Mar. 2020, www.keepingbackyardbees.com/6-amazing-facts-about-mason-bees-zbwz1712zsau/. Accessed 28 Mar. 2020.