The first year we lived in our house, the bees were everywhere and our apple trees rewarded us with the biggest, juiciest apples I’ve ever had the pleasure of biting into.
Last year, for some reason, the bees came in much smaller waves, and our apples were nearly non-existent. It was sad and a bit baffling, although the Robins who nest every year in same apple trees seemed completely unphased by not sharing the space with their buzzing buddies.
I honestly didn’t realize that our low apple production had anything to do with the mason bees who pollinate apple trees at all, until local mason bee conservationist Carla Pederson gave us the 4-1-1 on what lives in the bee-friendly universe. Carla, who runs Bees & Blooms Nursery in Courtenay, recently gave the tiny person and I a tour of her amazing pollinator sanctuary on the grounds of her home/business, offering up a lesson in the life of bees.
Turns out that when my mother-in-law retooled the backyard gardens that first Fall, pulling out what didn’t jive with her aesthetic or appeared to be a weed, she got rid of the plants that lured the bees into the yard and their past nesting locations.
We’d – unwittingly – removed the bees from our yard. Now, it’s all about bringing them back.
So, where to begin?
It all starts with providing bees a place to nest.
Let’s get a few misconceptions out of the way first. Bees, as a general rule, are docile. Their wasp and hornet cousins give them a very bad name. While I don’t recommend running out and letting your tiny people try to pet the bee snacking on a blueberry bush bloom in the backyard, I remember the first time I saw Ken’s mom literally run her finger over the back of a giant bumblebee like it was nothing.
Many of the thousands of species of bees that inhabit the world with us are solitary – many do not make honey – spending their time gathering food, building nests and reproducing. Mason bees - who are only active for about 12 weeks each year, are particularly tame, only the females have stingers. Pederson, who has maintained more than 10,000 mason bees for years, has only been stung once. So, these guys are what we are going to focus on here in family-friendly mode.
The loss of nesting habitat is one of the greatest threats to the life of mason bees. Folks spend a lot of time getting rid of nests, grinding down the stumps of old trees or removing beetle burrows in their yards – the exact things that these bees use to build their homes.
Mason bees have a lengthy developmental cycle. Adult bees spend their late Spring and Summer preparing to lay their eggs, which then hatch in the Fall and remain in hibernation throughout the Winter, until busting out and starting the cycle all over in the Spring.
While habitat has declined, mason bees are rapidly becoming users of nesting boxes (see the photo above), where they can lay their eggs, the larva can remain all Winter in your backyard and each year you’ll have a new crop of bees to aid in the pollination process.
Once you have your box (you can get them, fully loaded with mason bee larva, by ordering them from Pederson or, even more fun, use This tutorial from the Life Cycles Project to build your own) then it comes time deck out your garden with flowering plants that are built for some bee love.
These early-blooming primrose have an obvious appeal to the buzzing crowd (check out those colours) who are just waking up from Winter. Paired with the pink and white Heather and daffodils that are so dominant in early Spring, these are a perfect match for getting bees to know that your yard is a friendly spot.
As the season moves on, your garden needs to lend a hand by continuing to provide blooming plants. The general rule is to plant flowers that are colourful and nectar-rich like lupine, poppies, pansies, bee balm (monarda) and pieris japonica (see below). Herbs are also a great bee attractor.
The addition of a water source is a big bonus. A bird bath or even just a bucket of water works well.
Bee gardens don’t have to take up entire backyards. In fact, something as small as a window box can attract enough mason bees to a yard for some healthy pollination activity as masons are known to pollinate as many as 100 times an hour. (Whoa)
If you are looking at the list of plants above and thinking “Holy cow, Robin. I will never make it to the nursery with my kiddos and the list of flowers properly in tow” I have an amazing opportunity for families in the Valley to learn about mason bees, get everything you need for your bee garden (butterflies and hummingbirds too) and tap some excellent pollinator resources.
I highly recommend heading out to Bees & Blooms Nursery at 2940 Lanyon Road (just off of Marsden) in Courtenay. Pederson is all about family and her nursery is no exception. She can coach you through planting your own pollinator garden, show you hers and give you a chance to check out her 10,000 mason bees for yourselves. The kiddos can run around the grounds, checking out the chickadees and ducks, hummingbirds and other wildlife as well as the mason bee houses that dominate the landscape. It is truly a learning experience for the whole family – a slice of science and nature all wrapped up into one.
Who knew bees could be so family-friendly?:)