Busy as a Bee*

The bee scene in Fried Green Tomatoes, in which Mary Stuart Masterson reaches through a swarm of bees to extract honey from a tree trunk, is one of the most memorable movie scenes I’ve ever seen.

I channeled Masterson (who did the scene without a stunt double) less than a decade later when I encouraged a swarm of bees to follow me from a shed to a different part of the yard then back again when I realized I was better off leaving them where they were.

My more recent bee experiences have been with the gentler, solitary kind, the mason bee (from the genus Osmia). Mason bees produce neither honey nor beeswax but play an important role in the pollination of our flowers and fruit trees. In fact, mason bees are such efficient pollinators, it takes just one mason bee to pollinate 12 pounds of cherries, while it takes 60 honey bees to do the same!

Mason bees seem rather unbeelike, actually, especially when you first meet them. For one, they don’t live in hives. Mine nest in a little bee house with a shingled roof. Inside the house are cylinders formed by stacking trays, where the female bees lay their eggs. These cylinders can also be paper straws or tubes. While drilled-out wood is also possible, it’s much easier to use the trays because you can separate them for easy cleaning in the fall. In the natural world, mason bees nest in hollowed-out twigs or the abandoned nests of beetles or other critters.

“Although there is a bit of an industry around mason bee houses, as long as the right kind of plant material is available, the houses aren’t entirely necessary,” says Queensborough resident Douglas Justice, who’s also the associate director of horticulture and collections at the UBC Botanical Garden. He does add, however, that the houses are “great for clean freaks and balcony gardeners.” I personally love using the store-bought house because it lets me become a part of the bees’ short lives and keeps me more attuned to the season, the weather, and what’s happening in my garden.

For those of you who also want to buy into the bee-house craze, setting up your mason bees is a fairly simple task. I started with the bee house, 30-cylinder trays, and some mud that the females use to build walls to separate the cocoons. While you don’t need to buy the mud, I did because it’s the right composition and lasts for several years in a bowl (just make sure it doesn’t dry out during bee season). For the first few years, I bought my bee cocoons as well. Now, however, my bees return to the nest and lay enough eggs so that I don’t need to purchase cocoons. This spring, I was able to set out 56 cocoons! (I think a few of those may have come from my neighbours.)

In the fall, the mason bees are a bit more work. The cocoons need to be cleaned to remove pollen mites. This process involves a series of washes and rinses, some drying, and candling (using a flashlight in a dark room to ensure that tiny wasps haven’t parasitized the cocoons). Cocoons that have been parasitized are empty, so I toss them. After that, I gently agitate the remaining cocoons in a strainer to dislodge any mites that are still sticking to the surface. The entire process takes several hours, but it’s a somewhat fascinating ritual, and I enjoy the thrill of seeing my little bee family increase in size each year. When I’m done, I place the cocoons back in the cardboard boxes that the initial batch came in and store them in a drawer in the refrigerator, where they remain until the following spring. (Tip: when you go pick up your bees, take a cooler with some ice, so they don’t emerge on your way home.)

Most mason bees don’t look like “normal” bees. In fact, they’re actually rather fly-like. The kind I think I have, Osmia lignaria (orchard mason bee), is a sometimes bluish-black creature that is native to the west coast. Why do I just “think” I have Osmia lignaria? Well, while I initially bought Osmia lignaria from West Coast Seeds a few years ago, my bees have likely been joined by different types over the years. This year, the few bees I’ve noticed hanging out around the bee house were much bigger than those of previous years. Two were quite black and the other was a more typical yellow and black stripe.

Mason bee in flight
Mason bee in flight
Mason bee entering house
Mason bee entering house 1
Mason bee entering house
Mason bee entering house 2

Honeybees are also an important part of our ecosystem. They differ from mason bees in a number of ways. Honeybees travel farther to visit flowers, while mason bees prefer to visit flowers closer to their nest. Honeybees collect pollen in little baskets on their hind legs, while mason bees collect both pollen and nectar on their hairy bellies. Honeybees will sting more readily than mason bees, who will sting only when when they think they are in serious danger (like when they are caught in a sleeve or something). But because the act of stinging kills a honeybee, it will only sting once. (If you agitate their colony, however, you might get stung multiple times.)

Not into keeping bees of your own? You can still help the bee populations and support their pollination and honey-making efforts by planting some flowers of your own. A number of bee- friendly plants do well in the Lower Mainland, for example, lupine, lavender, fuchsia, and creeping thyme. Bees are attracted to both the colour and the smell of flowers, so a variety of both will keep them busy and happy.

Bees also prefer native plants to exotic imports. In fact, the humble dandelion will attract more bees than a fancy, multi-petalled rose. What’s more, hybrid ornamentals provide less pollen and nectar, largely because they were bred for larger or showier owers and not for pollen or nectar production.

Moody Park resident and xeriscape gardener Véronique Boulanger is learning more and more about bees as she goes. “Bees like blue and violet flowers because they see further into that end of the spectrum than we do (and less into the red end),” she says, so notices bee activity near her penstemon and lupines. She also sees bees frequent the paci c bleeding heart, the pretty shooting star, the double yellow tubular flowers of the black twinberry, and even the tiny flowers of the vine maple. “I didn’t create the garden specifically as a bee garden,” she says, “but since it’s a mostly native plant garden, the plants are those the local fauna evolved with.”

The trick to a successful bee garden, according to Justice, “is to have lots and lots of different kinds [of flowers] and to have at least some of the species that bloom over a long period. That way, if the weather turns particularly hot or wet or whatever, not all of the eggs are in one basket.”

But sometimes even that much effort is not required.

“Encouraging native bees is often as easy as not cleaning up dead stems in the garden, leaving at least a little open soil and providing a water source,” he says. And, of course, “keeping pesticides to a minimum is a good idea.”

Check out Feed the Bees for tips on creating your own bee-friendly garden, and visit Crown Bees for information on keeping mason bees and Urban Bee Network for info on keeping honeybees.

Bee Cool (Fun Bee Facts)

  • Only female bees can sting.
  • Honeybees are related to wasps and ants.
  • Honeybees exist on every continent but Antarctica.
  • Male mason bees always emerge first, often within half an hour of your setting out the cocoons.
  • Each female mason bees nest in her own tube, which her pheromones help her identify.
  • Antennae are one thing that distinguishes mason bees from flies.
  • You can tell male mason bees from female ones by the white hair on the males’ heads.
  • “Primary” colours for bees are blue, green, and ultraviolet. Other colours they experience as combinations of the three primary colours. They cannot see red or, rather, they experience red as black.
  • The bee’s stinger is really an egg guide.
  • Mason bees get their name from the fact that they build mud walls between individual eggs.

*A slightly longer version of this story first appeared in Tenth to the Fraser and still appears on their website. For cool New West-based stories, go check out their site.

All content © Barbara K. Adamski. All rights reserved. Please respect copyright.