Raising our own fruit and vegetables is a major part of our homestead. We look forward to spring planting as a family, tending to the plants and harvesting the fruits of our labor and love. However, when you’ve put in hours of work and don’t have any harvest, it can be quite devastating. We purchased 15 acres of raw land almost 13 years ago to carve out our homestead. After three years of clearing our homesite, putting in a well, septic and then our house, I was thrilled to be able to begin planting our own mini-orchard.
Because young fruit trees were cheaper, we purchased several varieties of apple, cherry and plum trees. I made sure that they were either self-pollinators or that we had two kinds of cross-pollinators for each type of fruit. I eagerly waited until the semi-dwarf trees were of age to begin producing fruit. Two years passed after they should have been producing crops, but the trees were only bearing one or two pieces of fruit. The cherry trees bore nothing.
RELATED: 7 Ways to Attract Native Bees
The Bee-Less Blues
I researched pruning, fertilization and even transplanted one of the apple trees to a sunnier location. As I watched the flowers cover the branches, I noticed there were no bees. I wasn’t getting any fruit because there were no pollinators. Honeybees are on the decline and cooler weather can also keep them dormant in the spring. For three days I went out to check my fruit blossoms at different times, thinking I’d just missed the bees. Silence. No buzzing or flittering bees.
Determined to get some fruit, I took a watercolor paintbrush and hand pollinated as many blossoms as possible. Thankfully, the size of our little orchard and the semi-dwarf trees were in my favor. That year we had our first apple harvest. But there was no way I could possibly hand-pollinate our trees every spring. I began to look into honeybee hives. While I love the idea of having our own source of raw honey, the work and setup cost to get our own hives was more than I wanted to invest. The option of renting hives was something we considered, but I didn’t really want to go that route either.
Masons To The Rescue
After talking with our local beekeep- er last year I came upon the perfect solution to our problem: orchard or mason bees (Osmia lignaria), which are non-honey producing. They’re quite docile and excellent pollinators. They also require very little work, which is a plus for this busy homesteading mama.
Mason bees are a great pollinator for fruit trees or plants that have a fairly short pollination window and bloom in the spring. The bees hatch out in the spring when temperatures are above 57 degrees, when most fruit trees are beginning to blossom. Because the bees only travel about 100 yards, unlike honeybees that will travel miles from their nest to gather pollen, they stay closer to their nest. This gives your trees a higher chance of getting pollinated.
Non-aggressive mason orchard bees are not a threat to areas where children or people are working or congregating. Our fruit trees are planted right next to our vegetable garden and strawberry boxes. I didn’t want to worry about the kids or myself getting stung whenever we went out to work with the plants. This made mason bees a good choice for us. And they don’t have the same viruses that are plaguing honeybees, which is a plus for those whose honeybees have suffered hive collapse or disease.
Never a huge insect fan, I picked a bouquet of lilacs and brought them indoors. Two of our mason bees hitched a ride inside. When I discovered them in the kitchen, I used a glove to transport them back outside. It was the first time I’d ever rescued an insect, especially a flying one. But they were very docile and I found myself studying them quite frequently. They never seemed bothered by my presence and went about their business as if I were not there.
Budget Bee Setup
Mason bees are inexpensive. Unlike honeybees, which require an investment in gear that can run into the hundreds of dollars, we started our set of mason orchard bees for under $40.
Mason bees don’t require a hive or a queen. They need a small tube or hole to lay their eggs in and build their nests. We purchased an entire kit at our local nursery. It came with a small box of mason bee larvae, a mason bee house and nesting tubes. We stored the box of bees in the fridge until we were ready for them to hatch and begin pollinating. The timing depends on when your fruit trees begin blossoming, which is usually in April for us.
You need to place your mason bee house in a sunny location with the opening preferably facing south. The mason bees need the warmth of the sun to warm them up in the morning before they’re able to fly and begin collecting pollen. They need a house or covering to keep their nests dry so mold doesn’t grow where the baby bees are waiting to hatch.
Be sure and place your mason bee house where you want the bees to pollinate. We put a post in the ground in the center of our row of fruit trees. When you place the house on the post, be sure it’s tipped slightly downward so if any rainwater gets blown in, it will drain out.
Place the cardboard tubes inside the house and then put the small box of mason orchard bees on top of the cardboard tubes. The males hatch first, with the females not far behind. I had a bee hatch out within an hour of placing the box outside. By morning, all the rest were hatched as well. When you see that the ends of the tubes are packed with mud, you know the bees have laid their eggs, usually three or four to a tube, and accepted their house. Usually, one female bee will fill several of the tubes.
The following spring, after your new bees have hatched, you’ll need to replace the tubes. You don’t want to reuse the same tubes since they can house diseases that will pass on to the next batch of bees. Just pull out the cardboard insert inside the heavier duty nest tube and replace it with a clean one. Last year, not all of the tubes were filled, so this year I’ll check them to make sure they’re all still dry and leave them in place while replacing the used ones.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, we have plenty of mud available for the female bees to make their mud nests. The bare soil from our garden area is a short distance from our Mason bee house, making access easy.
If you don’t have cardboard tubes, you can also set up wood and drill holes that are approximately 6 inches long. Make sure they’re south-facing and won’t get wet. The only disadvantage to this is that you won’t be able to clean out the used holes easily. Friends of ours have a log cabin and the mason orchard bees set up a colony in the logs on their own.
Mason orchard bees have a life span of about eight weeks. Usually, by the first part of June they have laid all of their eggs and have died. This makes them perfect for the spring fruit crops but not a candidate for your summer vegetable garden. During summer, larvae develop, make cocoons and become adults, hibernating until the next spring. They require some cold before they hatch.
You can purchase mason orchard bees locally from your farm and garden store or nursery. They are also available online. If you order online, I would be sure that the bees are sent from a location with a weather pattern similar to the one in your area. Many online retailers will make sure to match a customer’s zip code to the location of the bees they ship.
After our initial setup, the only ongoing expense will be for the tube inserts. One box is $8 and has enough for several years. While we may look into honeybees in in the future, we couldn’t be happier with mason bees for pollinating our orchard.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.