We spend a lot of time talking about honeybees because they're fantastic pollinators and they produce a tasty byproduct. However, honeybees are just one among over 20,000 recognized bee species, all of which contribute valuable environmental roles. If you want to take advantage of the benefits of bees without some of the drawbacks of honeybees, have you considered mason bees?
Mason bees don't produce honey, but they are superb pollinators, and they'll keep a garden in great shape. Furthermore, they don't sting, making them a great choice for companions in an area where keeping honeybees isn't feasible or there's a great deal of concern about stings (like, for example, if a member of the family has an extreme bee allergy). If you live in a concrete jungle, there's no room for a honeybee hive, but a mason bee block will fit right in. They're also pretty low-maintenance, a trait that makes them popular among some gardeners who want to keep bees around, but don't have the time or energy to maintain a hive.
How easy is it to keep mason bees? Get a block of wood, drill some holes in it, and hang it up. Face it toward the sun, and provide the bees with a source of mud to help them build their homes. That's it. Seriously. The bees will happily take up residence and start nesting in the block, and you can have several such blocks around the garden. You can order packets of mason bees from a variety of sources: We recommend finding a seller in or near your state in order to get an appropriate species of mason bee. (The photo above shows mason bee habitat.)
When the weather starts to get cold, you can gently move the nest to an area like the garage to protect the bees over the course of the winter. This will increase the chance that your little insect friends will survive, and it will also protect them from parasites, pests, and predators. In the spring, the bees can be brought back out to start pollinating again.
Here's the tricky part, though. Mason bees go into hibernation when it gets cold, but when it starts warming up, they wake up and emerge. If there's a sudden warm spell in late winter or early spring, the bees will wake up and venture out, but they won't find pollen, because there won't be any flowers out yet. As any HVAC contractor knows, warm weather rarely arrives smoothly, and there are often a few false starts before spring really gets going. Consequently, the bees will die, and you'll have to go through the process of ordering a new packet and nurturing them.
Time to chill out in the fridge
So, this is where the refrigeration part comes in. You can keep bees in a state of forced hibernation by stashing them in the fridge until the spring is well and truly sprung, with flowers establishing themselves and the weather staying warm. Once it is officially springtime, you can take the bees out, bring them to a cool room in the house to gently bring them out of hibernation, and hang them outside in two to three days. They'll react to the warm weather by waking up and then they'll hit the garden in search of pollen — pollinating your plants along the way
Keeping mason bees is a great project for beginner gardeners looking for pollinators, and for parents interested in teaching their kids about animal husbandry. Because mason bees don't sting, they can be safely handled by enthusiastic learners and people who aren't familiar with bees.
Check out this mini-documentary on mason bees by permaculture expert Paul Wheaton:
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