I want to continue the story about solitary bees because I find them so fascinating, largely because they seem to offer so much potential to benefit us locally with so few costs and very little management compared to honey bees. In fact, it is said that you can manage your solitary bees with just a few hours per year. One book says just two hours per year. We’ll see.
There are thousands of kinds of solitary bees and I am pretty sure that none of them make honey, but the two that are popular for backyard and commercial crop pollination are mason bees and leaf-cutter bees.
As I said before, mason bees are named such because they cap off their individual tubular cells with mud, just like their namesakes, the masons, who work with so-called mud or mortar to put together brick walls.
Leaf-cutter bees cut tiny circles of soft leaf material from alfalfa, clover, hostas, roses, lilacs, etc., and stick them together with saliva to form their protective cells within a tubular home in which they lay their eggs and which will eventually contain the larva which becomes the pupa and finally the adult bee.
Generally speaking, mason bees are early flyers and they emerge from their cocoons in the spring and pollinate our cherries, apples, strawberries and other early spring flowers. They only live for about six weeks although their season will last longer than that depending on when they emerge.
They gather pollen and nectar and immediately begin laying eggs inside of tubular nests made from natural reeds or made from paper tubes or wooden boards. The trick to raising them is to provide them a nesting cavity that can be opened in late summer so that you can harvest the cocoons and store them in a refrigerator in a humidifier tray until next season.
Do not use bamboo because it is very difficult to crack open without damaging the cocoons. The houses and tubes are commercially available, but I intend to make a bunch to supply to gardeners so that we can increase the availability of pollinators locally. Even kids can participate because these bees hardly sting and do not contain the venom found in honey bees.
The leaf-cutter bees emerge a bit later when the temperatures are warmer and they pollinate our peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, etc. They are specialists on our summer crops. They also use those commercially available houses and tubes and I intend to also make them. They prefer a slightly different diameter hole in which to nest than the mason bees.
They, too, can be harvested in late summer and fall to be used the following year. If things go well, you should be able to increase your stock of bees every year because each bee will lay several eggs, most of which you hope will be viable and healthy next year.
The trick is to use nesting material that can be refreshed each year. Honey bee handlers are well aware of the problems with fungi, viruses, insect pests, etc., which can accumulate in a typical hive, largely because they use the same equipment over and over. We completely replace or sanitize the equipment every year with solitary bees and that reduces or eliminates most of the potential problems.
I am buying much of the equipment and supplies this year so that I can replicate them in the future to help gardeners in this region. I hope that our commercial strawberry and other garden crop growers will also use solitary bees in addition to their honey bees.
More fertilizer does not guarantee more food production, but better pollination will ensure more productive crops.
Matt Nowak is a retired natural resources specialist and lives in Lansing.