Osmia Lignaria: a wild, Native-to-Montana, solitary super pollinator bee!
--Mason bees are gentle, non-aggressive, solitary (live and work alone) yet gregarious (they like each other’s company). They are inspiring workers and fun to watch. Though insects are suppose to be all of a feather so to speak, there are among these bees, every now and then, a few characters that stand out, draw attention to themselves through any number of antics or unexpected behaviors. They’re full of surprises. Spend enough time watching them and you’ll see what I mean.
--Mason bees are not social creatures like honey bees. There is no queen. Or hive. They do not make honey. They do not swarm. Their sole purpose in life is to provide for a following year’s generation of bees.
--Timed by evolutionary forces to emerge from their nesting holes when the pollen of apple blossoms and blossoms of other trees, flowers and bushes becomes viable (when temperatures warm to 57 degree F), the smaller males appear first, females a week or so later.
--Males have longer antennae and come with an attractive tuft of blond hair on their faces. Females are larger, plump vigorouse ladies with short antennae and no hair dos. Both are deep blue-green in color and have a metallic sheen.
--Males die shortly after mating. Females fly off then to be alone to allow their ovaries to develop and to build up their energy reserves and strength while feeding on pollen and nectar. When ready females then look for clean suitable nesting holes in which to store gathered pollen and nectar, lay eggs, sealing off brood chambers for each egg with walls of mud.
--Note: females store the male’s sperm and use it to fertilize only those eggs she determines to hatch as females. Unfertilized eggs always hatch as males. A mason never lives long enough to meets its young. The young emerge only a year after its parent has passed.
--The meal packets collected for the developing bees consists of 65% pollen (for protein) and 35% nectar (for energy). Each mound of nutrients has the size and heft of a new #2h pencil eraser. This is all the food and moisture the developing bee will have for an entire year.
--It takes a female mason bee an estimated 25 individual foraging trips, each time visiting a minimum of 75 blossoms, to gather enough pollen and nectar for her to lay a single egg. If the bee in her short four to six week life span can lay up to 36 separate eggs, which is tops under favorable conditions, you can see doing the math (25 x 75 x 36), that the total number of pollinated blossoms comes to 67,500! That’s a ton of potential apples waiting to grow and ripen! And all from just one bee!
--Note: experts have established that as few as 300 to 500 foraging mason bees can match, even surpass the work of a hive of 20,000 to 25,000 honey bees in a one acre orchard of apple trees. Mason bees are currently employed by California almond growers and other farmers taking the place of honey bees whose numbers have crashed dramatically because of the world-wide colony collapse syndrome.
--Mason bees are not plagued with the same kinds of devastating problems facing honey bees. They are not infected with the tiny trachea mites (acarine and varroa) which suck lethal amounts of blood from honey bees. In 2009, my bees were tested for viruses at U of M by the Integrated Virus Detection Systems (IVDS) and given a clean bill of health.
--Masons may forage up to 300 feet and more from their nesting sites. Besides flowers they also need a ready supply of good mud with which to construct their nurseries, damp soil that is not too wet, too organic or too sandy because these materials do not pack well or dry hard enough to secure nesting sites.
--Unlike a honey bee which gathers pollen on its hind legs, pollen clings electro-statically to hairs on a Mason’s body and is easily brushed off in the nesting hole. Nectar sipped along the way is also mixed with the pollen at the time.
--Masons can defend themselves if handled roughly. They can’t sting though because they do not have barbed stingers with detachable venom sacks like honey bees do. They give an offender a sharp little poke with an instrument that protrudes from the end of their abdomens. It is their ovipositors (egg guides) that catch a person’s attention. In effect, the damage inflicted is more like a mosquito’s bite than anything else.
--Masons have their pests. Pollen mites, small wasps, spiders, speckled beetles (drawn by the scent of mold growing on pollen) invade nesting holes, deposit their own eggs then vacate leaving the mother bee completely oblivious to their invasions.
--Some song birds like finches and sparrows can pluck flying masons right out of the air. Woodpeckers, especially flickers with their long beaks and even longer sticky tongues, make easy pickings out of developing bee larvae.
--Neighborly squirrels pull nesting straws out of their blocks and consume what they find inside. Blocks can be protected with chicken wire to keep such pests at bay.
--Under optimal conditions mason numbers may increase six fold from one year to the next.
--If nesting straws are not provided for the bees nesting in holes drilled in blocks of wood, the blocks must be discarded after the first year. This is because the holes are full of nesting debris: dirt, larvae poop, uneaten pollen, etc., which various pests and pathogens find too attractive to ignore, which never bodes well for the health and vigor of a new generation of bees…
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