Monday, January 30, 2012

How to Serve Your Bees

Mason bee
Photo by Charles Twine

By Sara Smith

Gardeners can become a little obsessive about “the birds and the bees”; after all, these creatures are couriers for flowers.

I recently decided to investigate how I can help my own garden better serve the bees that, in turn, serve my garden. I learned that our native bees are mostly mason bees, gentle and nondestructive bees in the genus Osmia. Two of the bees native to North Carolina are the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) and the blueberry mason bee (Osmia ribifloris).

Many of our wild bees feed on a diversity of plants, but these two types of bees tend to specialize. On family farms and in urban gardens, the native mason bees do most of the pollination. In some cases, they can do even more than honeybees do. For example, tomatoes do not attract honeybees because the blossoms contain no nectar and the pollen is deep inside the anthers, so they are pollinated by wind. However, the native bees have a way of vibrating the anthers to dislodge the pollen, which significantly increases cross-pollination between plants, which in turn increases the fruit set by almost 50 percent.

Mason bees are so named because they use mud to build compartments in hollow reeds or holes left by wood-boring insects. After cleaning out the hole, the female begins to load it with pollen and nectar, finally laying a single egg and sealing off the compartment with a thin layer of mud. By repeating this process, she works until the hole is nearly full. Finally, she seals the hole with a thick plug of mud. Once the eggs hatch, each larva consumes all its provisions and then spins a cocoon to pupate. The larva transforms to an adult stage toward the end of summer, but it remains in the cell throughout the winter to emerge in the spring.

Three basic provisions allow the mason bees to prosper: housing, food and water. Gardens, both vegetable and flowering, provide nectar and pollen for the bee population.

For housing, I found a simple construction plan for a mason bee box in N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension publication “How to Raise and Manage Orchard Mason Bees for the Home Garden."

Food is supplied by the amazing dance between flowers and bees, each supplying the other with a life essential. I plan to designate space for native wildflowers and plants.

I’ll provide water and open ground at the drip line around my air conditioner for them to make mud. If that doesn’t hold enough water, I’ll dig a small hollow in which water can collect.

This year, I hope that you, too, will consider helping out our native bees. They will forage in your garden and vegetable crops from summer until fall, literally making possible the flowers, fruits and vegetables we love and need to survive and prosper. By providing shelter and food for these amazing creatures, we support sustainable agriculture as well as wild and “domesticated” plants that they service. It’s a win-win for both the bees and us.

If honeybees are your interest, you may want to sign up for Duke Gardens’ beekeeping course on two Saturdays, February 4 and 11, from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information or to register please call 668-1707, email our registrar or visit

Sara Smith is the education registrar and a volunteer propagation team member at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Herald-Sun.

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