By Thyra McKelvie

If you’ve been thinking of hosting bees in your yard, releasing native solitary bees should be at the top of your list! Solitary bees, known as mother nature’s best pollinators, account for a whopping 90% of the 20,000 species of bees worldwide. Solitary means “alone.” Each female bee lays all her own eggs, forages for her own food, and makes a nesting chamber for each baby. They do not have a hive or make honey and they have no queen to protect, which makes them gentle and non-aggressive. They are known as the stingless bee, and have a striking resemblance to a housefly with a greenish-blue iridescent sheen. Emerging from hibernation in early spring when temperatures reach 55+ degrees, these impressive bees have earned their name through diligent “masonry” work: They use mud to construct intricate nesting chambers, each including an egg, pollen loaf, and another layer of mud. Each female only lays about 15 eggs in her lifetime. Then egg will turn into a larvae that will consume the protein-rich pollen loaf and then spin a silk cocoon. The larva will then grow into a full-grown bee inside the cocoon and emerge the following spring.

A blue orchard mason bee.

With their rise in popularity comes newfound appreciation and protection for this unique and necessary element to our ecosystem. Oregon is home to the blue orchard mason bee that is native to the Pacific Northwest. Because they are native bees, they’ve adapted to our cooler weather and climate, which makes them incredible pollinators. What makes mason bees so efficient is the way they pollinate. They have tiny hairs on their abdomen called scopa which collect pollen when they belly flop onto flowers. This enables them to pollinate 95% of the flowers they land on, in comparison to the meticulous pollen gathering of honeybees who only have a 5% pollination rate. On average, each solitary mason bee can visit more than 2,000 blooms daily, making them the unsung heroes of the pollinating world! Not only can they help us grow more food, but their indiscriminate pollen-collecting habits benefit our native plants as well. By making surrounding flora healthier and enabling them to flourish, solitary bee activity helps filter out pollutants from air and streams – increasing overall ecosystem health everywhere these little guys buzz around.

The mason bee belly flop.

That is why Rent Mason Bees has donated and released more than 250,000 solitary mason bees in western Oregon, to farms, wineries, and along the scorched McKenzie River to revive the flora and replenish solitary bee populations that were ravaged in the fire. Many local gardeners are also welcoming solitary bees into their gardens and backyards to help solitary bee populations and help their yards flourish. If you want the benefit of pollination, but not the hassle of cleaning the cocoons and sterilizing nesting blocks, you can purchase bees and rent nesting blocks. A rental program makes it easy to become a solitary bee host. Rent Mason Bees will send you a starter kit with a house, nesting block, clay, and cocoons. Harvesting and cleaning the cocoons and blocks is a critical step when hosting solitary bees to remove harmful predators. When you rent, you release bees and then send back the nesting blocks in the fall and they will take care of the maintenance and cleaning for you. Last season, Rent Mason Bees cleaned more than 3 million mason bee cocoons and harvested more than 40 million leafcutter bees, making them the largest solitary bee provider in the country and the only solitary bee company that cleans bees to ensure healthy bees are returned back to our environment. Watch their harvest video to see how they do it:

On a dandelion

What you need for a successful habitat:

  • FOOD: EARLY SPRING BLOOMS – After solitary bees emerge, they’re hungry and need food. Talk to your local garden nursery to learn what blooms in early spring or visit to learn what to plant that will support pollinators.
  • MORNING SUN – Set up a solitary bee house with a roof or cover to protect the nesting material from getting wet. Hang the house in morning sun.
  • NESTING MATERIAL – Insert proper nesting material to ensure your bees remain healthy all year long. Stacking trays or tubes that can be opened and separated are the best nesting material for bees. Do not use bamboo reeds or holes drilled in wood (see #5 below). Mason bee nesting holes are smaller than leafcutter bees, so make sure you use the correct ones.
  • MUD OR CLAY – Mason bees use mud or clay-type soil to plug their holes and lay their babies. Dig a hole about 10 feet away from their nest and stir in a mixture of mud and clay. Make sure its damp throughout the season.
  • NO PESTICIDES–Weed killer, slug bait, and pesticides can harm all our pollinators. Remember that mason bees use the mud to place next to their babies, so any pesticides can kill developing babies.
  • CLEAN EVERY FALL – This is one of the most important steps in hosting your own solitary bees. You must harvest and clean your mason bees every fall to remove predators. Bamboo reeds or holes drilled into wood cannot be opened and cleaned at the end of the season which means mold, fungus and predators like Houdini flies and pollen mites can wipe out your solitary bees.

These little pollinators bring life into springtime and will help your garden flourish. Invite these small pollinating superheroes into your yard and enjoy the sound of buzzing busy bees! Visit their YouTube Channel to watch educational videos about solitary bees.

Thyra McKelvie runs the pollination program for Rent Mason Bees to help gardeners host solitary bees. She loves to teach people about how to care for solitary bees through educational videos, articles, safe gardening tips, speaking events and school programs.