Spurred in part by concerns over declining bee populations, backyard beekeeping has surged in recent years. And while enthusiasts have traditionally focused on honey bees, more people are now raising mason bees in a trendy practice called bee ranching.
“Mason bees are the unsung heroes of bees,” said Laura Klahre of Blossom Meadow Honey and Coffee Pot Cellars Winery in Cutchogue. “They are a good alternative to honey bees or even a way to augment the work of other pollinating bees.”
Mason bees don’t produce honey, but they’re pollinating powerhouses. And these tiny, docile bluish-black bees rarely sting — eliminating the need for bee suits and other protective gear.
Raising mason bees involves minimal time and money. Ranchers provide a nesting shelter and a nearby bucket of mud. The set-up cost is about $130 as opposed to $1,000 for honeybee hives, according to Klahre.
“If a garden is failing, or not producing the same yield as in the past, people tend to think it is fertilizer or water issues. But it could lack pollination,” said Klahre.
After emerging from their nests in the spring, mason bees pollinate flowers within about 300 feet of their nests and the females lay eggs in individual nests. These bees die after four weeks and then the entire process repeats the following spring.
Mason bees make compartments of mud in narrow hollow reeds or in holes in tree branches. Bee ranchers mimic the natural nests by providing a stack of tubes about the size of a drinking straw. Once the eggs are laid, ranchers wrap the tubes with netting to ward off birds and other predators. One backyard ranching set-up contains a few hundred bees compared to a single honey bee hive, which houses as many as 50,000 to 80,000 bees.
A few years back, Klahre kept 100 hives (about 8 million bees) but she began losing them to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which the majority of worker bees disappear. While she still harvests honey and beeswax from a few hives, Klahre recently shifted her focus to mason bees. She now sells nesting shelters and mentors bee ranchers.
Ora Heath and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Katie, raise mason bees together in their flower-filled Southold yard.
“Katie needs to know about nature and this is something we can do together,” Heath said.
“We wrap them up to keep the woodpeckers out,” Katie added, pointing to a net covering a stack of tubular nests atop a 6-foot-high wooden pole. When the third-grader is asked whether she is afraid of the bees, the response is an enthusiastic no. “Mason bees won’t sting me. They are peaceful.”
Heath recently drilled small holes for nests in a piece of driftwood and plans to plant wildflowers in a grassy area of her yard to attract even more bees.
There are four thousand different species of bees in the United States and 470 in New York State. While honey bees aren’t native, they remain the most popular for beekeepers who want to harvest honey or beeswax.
Honey bees are, well, busy bees. They build honey combs, attend to their queen, maintain, clean and guard the hives. The foragers collect nectar for the hive and while they do pollinate flowers, it isn’t always their priority. And although not aggressive, honey bees do sometimes sting so protective gear is recommended for beekeepers who must get up close to the hives for maintenance purposes and harvesting.
Caroline and Ricky Rocchetta set up their first honey bee hive in 2010 after moving into their Greenport home. Formerly owned by an avid beekeeper, the yard was filled with a bounty of plants and shrubs intended to attract all types of pollinators.
“I was terrified of bees when I started,” said Ms. Rocchetta. “But now I find it meditative. I love watching them, love seeing them around the gardens.” As an added unexpected benefit, Mr. Rocchetta now uses the bee venom to alleviate arthritis pain.
Ms. Rocchetta advises new beekeepers to find a mentor. “It’s important to do right by the bees and give them the care they deserve,” she said.
Environmental horticulturist Kim Eierman, founder of horticultural consulting company Eco-beneficial!, agreed that people should take time to learn about bees if they are interested in beekeeping, bee ranching, or if they simply want to attract bees to their gardens. She suggested that homeowners provide a variety of flowering plants and reduce pesticide use.
Eierman said raising mason bees is a good option for homeowners and commercial growers who are more interested in pollination than honey.
“Two-hundred-and-fifty mason bees provide the same pollination services on one acre as 50,000 honey bees,” she explained.
“Learning to live with bees and respect them is very important,” said Eierman. “For instance, bumblebees are the most efficient pollinators. They are the beasts of the bee world. They are strong and tolerate cold and rainy weather. But pesticides still get them.”
Klahre agreed that pesticides, fewer natural habitats and land use changes have contributed to the decline of bees. She hopes introducing more mason bees to backyard landscapes free of chemicals and full of flowering plants will help restore dwindling bee populations.
Tips for Making Your Yard Bee-Friendly
1. Create gardens with a variety of plants that offer a succession of blooms from early spring through fall. Emphasize native plants.
2. Pick plants and shrubs with a variety of flower shapes and colors. Different bee species are attracted to different types of plants.
3. Cut back on pesticides and herbicides. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals.
4. Allow some clover and dandelions in your lawn. Bees love them!
5. Don’t over-mulch. Many bee species live in ground nests. Leave some bare soil in sunny locations.
6. Tired of carpenter bees making holes in your deck, siding or pergola? Plug the holes and then place a piece of fresh sawn lumber in a corner or behind the shed for them to make new nests.
** Tips provided by Laura Klahre and Kim Eierman.