You can set up a ‘bee flat’ without much cost or effort. Leafcutters are safe around children and pets, and fun to watch.
HERE’S A DIFFERENT kind of home-design idea: Set up a bee house in your yard this summer.
These might not be the bees you are thinking of. No hives. No honey. No aggressive behavior. Instead, gentle leafcutter bees are important pollinators of summer flowers, fruits and vegetables. In the Puget Sound region, they fly during July and August, visiting thousands of flowers a day.
One-third of our food must be pollinated in order to grow, such as apples, almonds, blueberries, squash and tomatoes. Leafcutter bees were introduced to the United States in the 1930s to help the alfalfa industry. Today, they are the world’s primary pollinator of alfalfa, something you probably don’t eat, but cows and pigs do. Think about that the next time you have a burger and milkshake.
Rent Mason Bees
While thousands of bee species live in the wild in this country, leafcutters may be housed in a human-made “hotel” without much cost or effort. They are known as solitary bees, and each female makes her own nest. Leafcutters are safe around children and pets, and they are fun to watch.
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Local company Rent Mason Bees makes it easy. In June, take home a wooden nesting block — full of 100 to 150 dormant bees — from one of the pickup locations in the region for $30 ($45 by mail). Houses should be placed 3 to 5 feet off the ground, facing south or southeast for maximum sun exposure, says biologist Olivia Shangrow of Rent Mason Bees.
Bees emerge when the temperature is warm enough. An efficient pollinator, one leafcutter is said to do the work of 20 honeybees. With a range of about 300 feet, they can boost your yield of flowers, fruits and vegetables.
During the few weeks that they fly, females pack the tubes with their eggs and tiny bites of colored leaves from your yard. (They will not damage your plants, but if you happen to show roses professionally, Shangrow says, these bees probably are not for you.)
After the adults die, the eggs hatch into larvae and are dormant for the winter. In September, you return the egg-filled nesting block. Rent Mason Bees removes the leaf cells and stores them in a cool, dry place. When bees use human-made nesting boxes year after year, pests and diseases can develop, so they need a little winter maintenance. Rent Mason Bees does the caretaking, while you get the benefit of uber-pollination.
In turn, a Northwest farm or orchard might hire your bees from Rent Mason Bees next year. Because honeybee colonies have been declining rapidly due to habitat loss, disease and pesticides, farmers across the country are turning to other types of bees for pollination. Your leafcutter bees could end up at a blueberry farm in Eastern Washington, Shangrow says, and those berries just might end up at your grocery store.
If DIY is more your style, buy a set of disposable cardboard or paper tubes (available online from Crown Bees and at some garden stores), and overwinter the leaf cells yourself. Reusable wood trays are also an option. Bamboo, plastic or drilled wood blocks are not recommended.
Next spring, consider raising native blue orchard mason bees. In April and May, mason bees pollinate early fruits, berries and flowering plants. A mason bee packs her nests with mud instead of leaves, in slightly bigger holes.
Finally, make sure your yard is pollinator-friendly: Eliminate chemicals, and consider adding native plants, especially native wildflowers. Even one packet of wildflower seeds will provide food for wild bees, birds and butterflies. And more food for pollinators means more food for us.