The official launch of spring for me does not start with snowdrops, sunshine, or the spring equinox. It begins when the mason bees emerge from the bee condo that I have for them on my own eight-story balcony. And that happened this week! Now, this is the fourth spring that I have had a bee condo and today was the first time that I was lucky enough to witness a bee munch her way through the mud wall, emerge into the daylight for the first time in her life, shake off the dust, clean herself off, and fly away. Such a magical moment! And even luckier, it’s on video!
But what are mason bees, you ask? Am I producing honey in the middle of the city? First, mason bees (specifically Blue Orchard Mason Bees or Osmia lignaria) are solitary bees native to British Columbia’s southern interior and coastal regions. They don’t live in hives, but certainly don’t mind sharing a common habitat, usually a holey tree or other piece of wood. And they don’t produce honey, only collect nectar and pollen to place in the cells in which they lay their eggs. So because they don’t have a large, common food store to protect, they are extremely docile and easy to “domesticate”.
The life-cycle of masons bees is absolutely fascinating. They only live for about 4-5 weeks. Once the female finds a suitable home to populate, she spends her time laying an egg or two a day, collecting pollen and placing it with the egg and walling it off in a cell with mud walls to protect it while it pupates. Starting at the back, every egg will be a female until the very last cell. Closest to the entrance, this one will contain a male bee and the plug will be extra thick to protect the brood. The males have larger mandibles, perfect for munching through the plug. After emerging, they will find a safe place to hang out, maybe forage for a bite to eat, and then they wait for the females to emerge.
And the only purpose of the male bees is to mate with the females. Once they accomplish that, well, their life-cycle is over. (Sorry boys! But there are worse ways to spend your time). Then the females start foraging and laying eggs and the whole cycle starts over.
So no honey and they are only out for about a month every year. So why do I love these l’il gals? First, they are beautifully adapted to their environment. They are usually one of the first bees to emerge, and I’m told they work harder and forage further than honey or bumble bees. Love Okanagan apples? They were probably pollinated by mason bees! And because they are so docile, they don’t mind if you get up close and watch them work on filling their cells (just don’t make any sudden movements). And they have such cute fuzzy l’il faces! And since I grew up in wild-country, I like being able to observe nature assert herself in the city.
If you choose to house mason bees, I would recommend checking out Beediverse. Like honey bees, mason bees are suffering from mite infestations and these homes make it very easy to open up the cells, clean the cocoons and then place them in a container for safe keeping (with a hole big enough that they can get out of it!). I haven’t had much of a mite issue until this year and haven’t cleaned my cells (but will this year!) but I have cleaned others and it’s very easy to do and can be done anytime between August and October. So for very little effort, you can add a little nature to your city, too.
So, here is a video of my l’il gal introducing herself for the first time on a gloriously sunny day (slightly time-lapsed). Please excuse my hand entering the frame, I lost myself in the excitement and was pointing out her lovely fuzziness, like an angora sweater, and what I thought may be mites to a friend of mine who was lucky enough to have stopped by. We could actually hear her mandibles crunching away at the mud wall, but the sound has been edited out since, again, I lost myself in my excitement and started squealing.
Hope you enjoy!