Bringing a blossom to fruit trees
Everyone knows how important bees are in the garden for the party they play in pollination. No bees, no pollination, then no fruit.
The past spring was typical. At harvest time, our apples trees were almost bare. The pear tree had one pear on it and the Italian prune plum had a fraction of its normal crop.
I had been loudly lamenting this situation when Tom Williams introduced me to the orchard mason bee, which the fondly refers to as “the blue orchard” bee.
Likely, we’ve all seen these amazing little creatures busily visiting flowers in our gardens, but because they are small and seem insignificant, they get paid very little attention.
This is a big mistake because these incredible small wasps pollinate 95 per cent of blossoms visited, whereas honey yes average five percent. This has to do with the manner each species uses to collect nectar and pollen.
If you grow any fruit trees, it is important to attract these valuable small beasties to work their magic in your garden. To do this, you need to provide nest boxes because these bees are drive but one need only—to perpetuate their kind. The fact they are also marvelous pollinators doesn’t interest them one scrap.
In the wild, orchard mason bees lay their eggs one at a time, each separated from the next by a mud wall and all concealed in a tubular hole 5/16 of an inch (seven millimetres) in diameter.
The hole may be on excavated by a woodpecker in a tree trunk, an empty wormhole in wood, a hole in stucco or even the gap between wooden shingles. I even found cells in an abandoned earwig trap.
To attract these pollinators to your garden, hang bee boxes fairly close to your fruit trees. Attach them to a building rather than a branch since a nest box swaying in the wind will distract egg-laying bees.
In his fascinating book, The Orchard Mason Bee, author Brian Griffin provides detailed next box building plans. YOu need a 4X4 inch block of untreated wood (fir, pine or hemlock) about six to eight inches long.
Using the “brad point” drill, makes holes 3 3/4 inches deep on one side.
There will probably be room for about 30 tunnels. One should should be drilled in the back so your block may be hung against a protected wall that gets morning sun.
The name “Mason” is explained by another necessity–a source of damp earth. Bes use this to construct the mud walls between each egg and to provide a thick mud plug at the hole entrance to seal it and discourage predators.
If the weather is dry, you’ll need a small pile of earth close to the next, dampened for the bees’ use.
It is suggested that filled nesting blocks be left in place until October, when they should be very gently lifted down and stored in a dry area such as a garage. Always tore bee boxes upright.
When spring weather reaches 10 Celsius for several consecutive days, flowers burst into blossom and you may bring out your bee boxes and expect the blue masons to appear—but not until their time clocks ring their personal alarms.
Each female lays about 35 eggs during her short life span and all orchard mason bees will have completed their life’s work and (sadly) be dead by the beginning of June.
One final blessing is that these little gems don’t sting unless trapped under clothing. And if they should react in panic, the sting is equivalent to that of a mosquito bite.
Mason bees are not yet commercially available in Canada, but if you build the boxes, they will come.
Helen Lang is a Capital news contributor.