Honey bees may get all the glory but hardworking mason bees are critical for spreading pollen in flowers and trees throughout the local ecosystem.
At a workshop this weekend in Metchosin, biologist Gord Hutchings will demonstrate how to support the native orchard mason bee — including a hand-on look at how to build a nature-mimicking bee condo.
“They are solitary bees, not hive bees. They are much like people and like to congregate, but have individual dwellings,” said Hutchings, who has studied native bees for 22 years.
The mason bees naturally find small holes in trees to live and lay eggs. A bee condo is a wooden box with a grid of holes for bees to set up their nests.
“People will get to set up a bee condo and then the bees with come and pollinate the fruit trees,” said Metchosin Coun. Moralea Milne, who is helping to organize the event.
When laying eggs, mason bees bring the pollen onto the hole for larvae to eat. Then they lay eggs and build little mud walls between each egg.
“The small larvae eat the pollen and grow and grow,” Hutchings said.
An important part of owning a bee condo is cleaning cocoons to control mites. Often little mites find their way into the hole and lay eggs on bee eggs.
“We use a sand cleaning process to knock the mites off the cocoons,” Hutchings said. “The mites don’t hurt the bees, but they latch onto the bees and jump off on flowers and can out compete the bees for its food mass.”
During the winter the baby bees go into diapause or a bee hibernation and emerge from the hole at the end of February.
“That’s why we have to do this class outside,” Hutchings said explaining if they cleaned the cocoon inside the bees might think it’s spring time.
The orchard mason bees are native to Vancouver Island are prolific pollinators. With dwindling honey bee populations, Hutchings wants people to help mason bees thrive. He last gave a talk in Metchosin on several native bee species in the spring.
Honey bees have been imported from the Middle East and other countries. The species has been struggling with colony collapses related to diseases and the weather. Hutchings said some of the survival issues with honey bee populations stems from the fact they are not native to this area.
“There has been a lot emphasis on the honey bee as a pollinator,” Hutchings said. “But native bees have been here all along.”
On a daily basis, mason bees are more effective at pollinating plants, but their pollinating season is shorter than honey bees.
Orchard mason bees pollinate from late February to the end of May. “The cool, wet springs are too wet for the honey bees,” Milne said. “The whole point of using mason bees is they are native and already adapted to here.”
Encouraging mason bees to live around homes is pretty safe, Hutchins said.
“They sting like all solitary bees, but they will never go out of their way to sting you,” he said. “They either sting you by accident or if you grab them.”
The native bee workshop is Saturday, Oct. 8, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Metchosin municipal hall. Cost including materials is $45. To register call Milne at 250-478-3838.