mason beesYou may already have orchard mason bees flying around your garden. In early spring, look for metallic blue-black insects like the one in the photo at left. You might mistake them for house flies at first glance. But on closer inspection, you’ll notice four wings and antennae. Flies have two wings and no antennae.
If you don’t find bees, you can buy and release them. (One place to order them is Knox Cellars www.knoxcellars.com or 360-733-3283.) Be sure to order early in the year because as the weather warms, the hibernating bees may wake up in the post office instead of in your garden. They arrive in cardboard tubes, which you store in the refrigerator until temperatures reach 50 degrees consistently.
Place the tubes, along with some empty ones for nesting, in a home. Since they’re cold-blooded, orchard mason bees need the sun to get them going every morning. A sunny, south- or east-facing wall that’s out of the wind is a perfect spot. A single tube, or tunnel, is home to several bees, each nestled into its own little mud-walled cell. You can help the bees with their masonry work by making a mud puddle for them. Spring usually brings plenty of rain, but when it’s dry, turn over and water a shovelful of soil near the nest.
When leaves start falling in autumn, bring in the nesting tubes to a refrigerator kept at 38 degrees. In the North this saves the bees from being faked out by a January thaw. In the South, the bees will emerge stronger and healthier if you give them a rest in the refrigerator every winter. Put them out again before mid-May because they only have enough bee “fat” to sustain them in hibernation until then. Welcome these gentle pollinators next spring and watch your garden buzz with activity.