“MY BEES ARE HATCHING! MY BEES ARE HATCHING!” My cries echoed across the yard as I enthusiastically informed my family of the good news.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure that my bees (Megachile rotunda) were still alive until that muggy summer afternoon. Spring and early summer had been an environmental rollercoaster with temperatures sometimes ranging as much as forty degrees between night and day. While I was reasonably certain that my bees had made it through our winter (which was unusually mild), I wasn’t as confident that their development hadn’t been arrested by these wild fluctuations. Had the multiple thaws and freezes killed my overwintering friends? And how would I react if it had?
To be honest, these weren’t the bees that I’d wanted to keep. It had been honeybees which had originally attracted my attention and not so much because I was interested in keeping bees, myself, but because I was in the process of writing a novel which featured a rather eccentric main character… and what’s more eccentric than keeping bees? I’d picked up a copy of “Beekeeping For Dummies” for background material, but before I had finished I’d begun to feel a strange compulsion to try my own hand at developing and maintaining an apiary.
Unfortunately, at the time, our city ordinances forbid the keeping of beehives within city limits (though this didn’t prevent a few fastidious and secretive residents from doing so) and I turned my attention to another fascinating species: Osmia lignaria otherwise known as the “Mason Bee”. Unlike Apis mellifera, Mason bees are solitary in nature, hatching and mating in early spring, then laying their eggs in the hollowed shells of old reeds or any other cozy hole of the appropriate size.
The process is a simple one that begins with mud which the bee carries from a nearby puddle to the back of its new home. After building a rather thick exterior plug which will help to keep predators like parasitic wasps away from the nest, she collects a pile of pollen which will serve to feed her young offspring after it hatches in the fall. Laying a single egg atop the pile, she then constructs yet another mud wall to separate this nesting cell from the next. And the process begins again. If all goes well, each hatched and fully fed grub will then spin itself a cocoon where it will undergo metamorphosis into an adult bee and wait for spring.
Again, I purchased several volumes including Brian L. Griffin’s “The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee”, Sherian A. Wright’s “Mason Bees for the Backyard Gardener”, and a copy of the “Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects”. I’ll admit to having been surprised to discover that native pollinators do a far more efficient job of spreading pollen than their much acclaimed counterpart, the honeybee. Tidy little creatures, focused upon producing the sweet food which will bring the queen’s offspring through the winter, A. melifera hoard their pollen. Placing the lovely golden treasure into baskets on their legs, they effectively prevent the precious substance from landing upon the very plants which need it in order to survive. While they do miss a bit here and there (permitting them to still maintain a reputation as effective pollinators), they do far less good for the garden and the environment in general than do their “dirty” native neighbors.
Taking a trip to www.beediverse.com, I selected their economical (and well-constructed) Chalet for my garden. Hanging it on a trellis facing the morning sun, I waited. And waited. And waited. Despite the fact the O. lignaria was supposed to be native to my area, she never arrived. And it was with great disappointment that I wandered out to the garden one afternoon, intent upon removing the house and setting it aside until the following season when I would be able to pre-stock it with bees ordered from a supply company.
Much to my surprise, the little Chalet was buzzing with activity! A group of tiny bees had taken up residence and was quickly stuffing the tubes not with plugs of mud, but with the clippings of green leaves from the nearby shrubbery. I’ll admit that for a moment, I questioned whether if might be appropriate to continue with my plan to remove the house, since leafcutters are considered a bit of a local nuisance, but reason won out. Within a few days, each of the tubes was stuffed, sealed, and ready for winter. Thanks much to the advice of Dave Hunter at www.crownbees.com, I elected to leave the bees inside of their tubes rather than placing the cocoons in my refrigerator over winter.
Not just once this spring did I wonder whether I’d regret that decision. The insects did not emerge as planned and I was left with tubes packed with what I imagined were dead bees. I admit that I had been silently mourning them until a few days ago when, stepping out to check the house one last time, they were there. Each sealed tube in the bee house had been opened as the young males, followed by the females, had chewed through the leafy barrier.
Today, nearly half of the tubes are filled once more, surrounded by a buzz of activity as these gentle bees move in and out, preparing their nests for another winter. My experiment was a success and I find myself pleased to offer my yard (and a few of my leaves) to my newfound friends!