For just 10 days out of the year, Jim Watts gets a good look at his millions of bees.
They arrive to him in Bothell in October in dozens of U.S. Postal Service boxes from all over the country.
Growers, from commercial farms to the casual gardener, rent bees from Watts, owner of Rent Mason Bees, to pollinate their crops and gardens.
Mason bees, native to the Pacific Northwest, do better in cold weather and are delivered throughout the region around March to help pollinate cherries, apricots, blueberries and pears. They are sent to commercial almond farms in California in February. Smaller leafcutter bees, which thrive during the summer, help pollinate blueberries in Eastern Washington and alfalfa, canola and carrot seed crops in other parts of the country.
Unlike honeybees, these species are solitary bees. They don’t live in hives or have a queen and they don’t produce honey.
Watts ships them out while they’re still in cocoons, in a white tube with a hole, along with a black wooden hanging home with a nesting block containing a grid of long holes. His business, he said, typically rents around 1,000 bees an acre for commercial customers.
After the bees crawl out of their cocoons in the spring, they pollinate for four to six weeks.
While farmers often use both honeybees and solitary bees to pollinate crops, mason and leafcutter bees are more efficient pollinators since they can collect pollen all over their bodies and not just their back legs, said Rent Mason Bees spokesperson Thyra McKelvie.
“They are really incredible for our environment and our habitat so people who rent them usually have orchards or gardens or want to help the solitary bee population,” she said.
Each female lays 15 eggs, each with its own pollen. Depending on the species, the egg is packed with either mud or leaves and petals in the holes of the nesting blocks. After the eggs hatch the larva spin themselves into a protective silk cocoon.
Then in October, the blocks are mailed back to Bothell. Staff and volunteers use a special machine that removes the organic material before each block is washed and sanitized with fire to kill any trace of the fungus that causes chalkbrood disease, which can wipe out both plants and animals.
The cocoons, Watts said, are given a bleach bath and rinsed to remove any lingering pollen mites and maggot-looking Houdini flies. If viable, cocoons are placed in bins in a cooler where they will stay until the next growing season begins in the spring and the cycle starts again.
The type of bees Watts rents and raises don’t sting, not that it matters as they arrive and leave in their wormlike larva form in cocoons.
Climate change is the elephant in the room for farmers, Watts said, and his operation is no exception. Part of the appeal of sending bees all over the United States to consumers is that Watts can keep an eye on where they thrive and where they don’t.
In the Puget Sound area, the bees seem to do well in the microclimates of West Seattle, Sammamish, Bainbridge and Vashon Island, he said.
Renting to home gardeners makes up around 10% of Rent Mason Bees’ business and Watts boasts of being the only company that rents mason bees to casual gardeners.
From perfecting the color of the hanging home to the machine that breaks open the nesting blocks, developing the mason bee side of the business has taken about nine years, he said.
Watts grew up on a farm in Eastern Oregon where his father, a schoolteacher, raised and rented leafcutter bees on the side for extra money. Watts’ first job at 8 years old was to crawl under the bee huts and crush nonstinging mono wasps with his finger.
Watts says he sees the bee rental program as a way to educate people about farming and where food comes from. Ultimately people who live in urban areas are the ones who vote when it comes to legislation that either supports or puts family farms out of business, he said.
“Farmers don’t do a very good job helping people understand where their food is coming from,” he said. “People in the cities need to understand what’s going on.”