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.

Upland Pursuits: Conservation of the Western Monarch Butterfly

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, livestock pastures peppered the landscape. Black and red angus, and Holstein to supply the dairies were commonplace. Spring and early summer sprouted lush green fescue and stands of various weeds unbeknownst to me at the time, save for the patches of flowering thistle and milkweed, head high to a five-year-old.

Back when youth were allowed to roam free, I would stroll across the county road and explore the neighbor’s pasture toting an empty Mason jar. I was fascinated with all things wild, to include the brilliant variety of butterflies and moths that frequented the fuchsia thistle blooms.

Standing motionless amid the spiked stalks, I waited for a butterfly to land and pipe the sweet nectar from a flower. Slowly reaching out, I delicately pinched its folded wings between my chubby fingers, admired the spectacle momentarily, then released them, similar to catch-and-release fishing. Occasionally, a new or particularly fine specimen would make its way into the jar to be added to an immaculately-framed representation of our local species.

Tiger and pipevine swallowtails, common buckeye, eastern tailed blue and painted lady to name a few. And, of course, the royal highness monarch with its orange and black hues. While monarchs rely on milkweed for reproduction, I found they visited the thistle nearly as often as the swallowtails.

Monarchs present a nation-wide distribution as an iconic pollinator species. They display a fascinating behavior of seasonal migration, similar to songbirds. East of the Rockies, monarchs overwinter in southern portions of Florida and Mexico. In our neck of the woods, the winter “hiver” is the southern California coast.

Monarchs on the winter hiver (Public Domain)

At present, a number of environmental factors, including the loss of milkweed habitat, are threatening monarchs across their range. A February 25th article in The Guardian cited illegal logging and land use changes in Mexico as compounding factors in a 68 percent population decline on the winter hiver since 2018, and the population west of the Rockies is faring no better.

In 1997, the Xerces Society established the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, similar to the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, where “citizen scientists” document monarchs on their western winter hiver. According to Washington State University, the 10 million monarchs documented in the 1980s declined to 30,000 in 2018, and fell below 2,000 in 2020.

Dramatic loss of the western monarch population led to special interest groups petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to protect the butterfly and their habitat with a listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A FWS status review determined that “…listing the monarch butterfly as endangered under the ESA is warranted but precluded by higher priority actions.” In other words, there are more than one hundred imperiled species ahead of the monarch in need of FWS resources and protection.

Additionally, under the ESA, an insect species cannot be segregated into subpopulations like birds, mammals and fishes. Therefore, the FWS must consider the status of the monarch butterfly as one population across its North American range. If the western monarch were to be carved off as its own “distinct population segment”, it’s ESA listing priority would likely be much higher.

While it appears that our western monarchs are spiraling toward extinction, there is always hope and potential for recovery. Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the Xerces Society promote pollinator initiatives that benefit monarchs among other pollinators. Many Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever chapters are willing to cost-share on pollinator enhancement projects, like the Blue Mountain chapter in Walla Walla, WA.

Showy Milkweed

Additionally, two congressional bi-partisan bills, the Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat (MONARCH) Act, and the Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act, were recently introduced to avoid the extinction of the western monarch.

The MONARCH Act would authorize $62.5 million for western monarch conservation projects, and another $62.5 million to implement the Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan, paid out over the next five years. 

The Monarch and Pollinator Highway Act would establish a federal grant program available to state departments of transportation and Native American tribes to carry out pollinator-friendly practices on roadsides and highway rights-of-way.

But positive change does not require an act of congress. Milkweed promotion in our back yards can benefit the western monarch. Research suggests milkweed patches as small as two- to five-square-yards in area could be affective for increasing monarch reproduction. Patches that small are easily managed in a backyard flowerbed or garden, and the western native “showy milkweed” boasts a beautiful spiked ball of pink bloom worthy of any flower garden.

While recent legislation is late to the table for the western monarch, the potential for new conservation funds and our ability to act as interested citizens suggests hope for this iconic pollinator. Will the western population boast a success story similar to species like the greater sage grouse or bald eagle? Only time a few congressional votes will tell.