Embracing our Native Mason Bees

Published in The Waitsburg Times, April 2nd, 2020 

NOTE: Featured image of a blue orchard bee taken by the US Geological Survey. 

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Early morning strolls through the summer garden at our little McKay Alto homestead can only be described as an angelic wakeup call. The capacious songbird melody wafts on a gentle breeze as the golden rays of sun push through the cool air that has settled in our little draw. The dahlias, peonies, sunflowers, yarrow and lupine bloom rich burgundy, cotton candy pink, canary yellow, snow white, and intense purple. The flowers are abuzz with bees busy at their morning routine. As the steam rises from my coffee mug, tickling my nose hairs, a small, dark, peculiar bee avoids the others, settling in on an unoccupied sunflower bloom. I lean in for closer inspection.

What’s your first thought when someone mentions pollination or pollinators? Is it flowers? Bees? Honey? Allergies? A gambling man would put money on it being honey and honey bees (why wouldn’t it bee, right?). While none of us could fathom a life without honey, the pollination is what’s critical to the success of native plant reproduction and diversity, and crop and fruit production.

Honey bees are a vital part of our ecosystem, and because of the succulent honey they produce, they are most commonly recognized for pollination and conservation efforts. But when it comes to effectiveness, honey bees will forever live in the shadow of our solitary natives.

Washington State is home to approximately 600 native bee species, ranging in size and shape from bumble bees to sweat bees, none of which build hives. But the lesser known and easily confused with other less desirable flies are the mason bees.

A few common species like the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) frequent our gardens and orchards, as well as our landscaped city blocks and urban homes. While some native species, like the emerald green sweat bee Agapostemon femoratus are obvious, mason bees are nondescript, dark colored or lightly striped, and smaller than honey bees. These are the bees that we see frequently but pay little mind or mistake for something else.

Mason bees are aptly named for their reproductive habits. The female mason bee often occupies holes in wood with larvae secured behind mud plugs for safe development. Mason bees don’t excavate holes, rather they clean debris from suitable spaces, pack them with pollen that they carry in on their belly, and seal in an egg. The female repeats this process until the space is full with the female eggs deposited at the back of the space for protection from predators. Eggs are laid in May, and larvae hatch and feed on the pollen until the following spring, when they emerge to complete their lifecycle.

Mason bees are quite docile and lead solitary lives. Since they only reproduce once each year, they don’t need extensive hives or honey production, but also forfeit the glamour of their extraordinary pollination abilities. A single mason bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers per day and just a few orchard mason bees can pollinate the same number of fruit trees as thousands of honey bees. For this reason, the blue orchard mason bee is prized as one of the few native pollinators managed in agriculture.

Trumbo - mason bee house

Similarly, mason bees have become rather popular on the pollinator market with bee houses readily available. Many houses use small, hollow bamboo shoots that can be replaced over time. Some scientists caution against the bamboo shoots in store-bought houses because the porous material holds moisture, promoting disease, mold and parasites. Other experts with the Xerces Society support the bamboo shoots, which seem to be a suitable material when kept sheltered from the elements. Storing occupied houses in an unheated shed or greenhouse over winter is a good practice. Materials like paper straws and breathable woods need to be replaced after the larvae vacate each spring.

Houses can also be hand-made by drilling holes in wood blocks 19/64th to 3/8th inch in diameter and six inches deep. Be sure not to pack them in too tightly, maintaining a minimum of ¾-inch spacing between holes.

Hang houses about six feet high and secured on an east-facing surface where they will receive morning sun to stimulate activity. Ensure the house is secured tightly and doesn’t swing in the wind. You may also want to enclose it in chicken wire to keep flickers and woodpeckers from discovering the tasty larvae. Finally, once the larvae have hatched in the spring, replace the disposable parts and sanitize the rest with a 1-part water to 3-parts bleach solution before rehanging.

Native mason bees are a treasure of the Pacific Northwest, encouraging biodiversity and enhancing flower gardens and fruit crops. If you really want to see native bees at the height of their glory, take a hike in the Blues around mid-July. The wildflowers are at peak bloom and thick with native bees of all kinds.

If you are a gardener, have an orchard, or have an interest in conserving our native pollinators, you can reap their pollination benefits with a fraction of the time and space required of honey bees. Hanging a bee house sounds a bit silly, as does being excited to see the little holes plugged with mud. But it’s another way to interact with nature at home, and that is something worth celebrating.

Now is the time to hang that house given spring has sprung and the mason bees will emerge very soon. If you give it a shot, drop a Letter to the Editor this summer with your observations. Let us know if you can identify the other native bee making home alongside the masons (they use leaves rather than mud to secure their larvae).

For more information, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Xerces Society provide excellent online resources.

Palouse Outdoors – Bug Shots to Enhance Photography

Published in The Waitsburg Times, September 2nd 2021

Outdoor photography goes far beyond birds and mammals, even for this hunter who loves nothing more than trying to capture that perfect pairing of upland bird and pointing dog on the grasslands. We all have our muse, but the natural world in its entirety offers countless opportunities to capture Mother Nature’s splendor at home and in town.

Bugs and blooms are among my favorite practice photography opportunities because of their brilliant colors, intricate details, and the fact that they surround us every day. Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens attract critters like ladybugs with their bright red wing cases, black freckles, and stark-white false eye spots. Tiger swallowtail butterflies with their golden wings striped in black, and the blue band around the lower lobes where the “tail” extends from the wing have intrigued me for 35 years. And then there are the myriad bee species, like our native green leaf-cutting bee with its blue-green, almost holographic opalescence.

Bugs and blooms are the perfect media to begin photography and otherwise hone skills on setting, lighting, and detail. While flowerbed photography seems ordinary, practice is paramount to good photography. Even when shooting bugs, you will have a subconscious scene and details you are trying to achieve, and a few tips and tricks can help transform the ordinary into extraordinary.

A honeybee prepares for liftoff from a sunflower head while offering a capture of its shadow cast upon the flower petals

Camera Settings: First, become acquainted with the macro and other settings on your camera. If you have a more advanced camera, a macro lens is an absolute game changer. These settings and lenses allow you to get up close and personal with your subject and really grab those minute details, like the hairs or antennae on a bee’s face, and learn new features that can help personalize and enhance your photos.

Obstructions: Check the foreground of your shot for lighter-colored features like a leaf or twig that can distract from the image subject. Even something small can reflect light and show up as a blotch, distracting from the focus of the image. Photo editing software can correct this, but that’s a topic for another time, and its best to avoid this type of image-altering as much as possible to maintain photo quality. Case in point, it is virtually impossible to shoot hunting dogs without grass in their face, and I am continually disappointed in the results of even minorly noticeable blurry patches from editing to remove the grasses.

Exposure: Many insects have reflective exoskeletons and wings that can “blow out” or overexpose details, showing up white in photos. An example can be seen as a white “eye” spot on the image of the flying honeybee. Bug shots are best taken in the shade with lighting later adjusted with editing software later, if necessary. You can easily use your body to shade the subject, but beware of high exposure in the background affecting image contrast.

The tarsal claws on the hind leg of this Nevada bumblebee can be seen as they cast a shadow on the flower.

Angles: Use creative angles to show something you think is interesting about the flower, critter, or the interaction of flower and critter or multiple critters. Are they doing something that seems unique? Does a moth or butterfly feeding on a bloom have a really long proboscis? Look for the angle to best capture the image that tells that story.

Clarity: Using fast shutter speeds for moving or flying subjects is critical. Settings of 1/250th of a second or higher are important to achieve clarity and sharpness. Sport modes on point-and-shoot cameras are made for this but may be difficult to focus when shooting up close in a critter’s personal space. A flash can aid in capturing more fine detail in either mode. Shooting from a tri-pod and with a remote shutter control can work wonders for preserving the fine details, but can be difficult to maintain the desired angle on moving critters.

Intimidated? There are so many photography details, cameras, options, and adjustments out there that it seems impossible to figure it out, much less pay off the loan required to purchase much of the gear. Fortunately, camera technology has come so far that even smartphones have decent cameras and ability to play with these simple concepts and settings.

Outdoor photography is challenging and highly rewarding, and becoming a better photographer simply takes time and practice. Regardless of the gear you have available, developing an eye for your imagery can be done with any camera, allowing you to hone your skills with bug shots, right outside your front door.     

Nevada bumblebees share a purple chive flower. Ideally, the fencing material would not be prominent in the background.