Everything you need to know about red mason bees
Honeybees can live in groups exceeding 55,000, bumblebees live in smaller groups of around 50 to 150.
#Solitary bees are just that, no colony, they prefer to go it alone and raise a small number of offspring.
There are in excess of 200 species of solitary bee in Britain, the red mason bee is endangered, but there is effort to increase numbers of these glorious creatures.
The red mason bee (Osmia bicornis), an endangered native solitary bee found in lowland England and Wales, is a tremendous pollinator, calculated to be between 120 and 200 times more efficient than the #honey bee. Like many solitary #bees, it doesn’t have any pollen sacs, so most of the sticky pollen is deposited on the furry underside of its body. Whenever these swiftly moving bees enter a flower, pollen is transferred to the next and so on, in the blink of an eye.
Commercial growers have noticed that, once these bees get busy, yields climb dramatically. One grower of ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ apples eradicated his bitter pit problem thanks to better #pollination. Cherries have also been found to have a much better shelf life.
Gardeners can reap the same rewards and get much better crops on their fruit trees, whether apple, pear or plum. Once installed in your garden, the bees will also stick around long enough to #pollinate blueberries, strawberries and summer-fruiting raspberries because they’re on the wing between March and June. They don’t produce honey, but they’ll pollinate flowers, too, and you’ll also have the fun of watching these industrious creatures zipping in and out of their nests.
Chris Whittles supplies red mason bees to commercial fruit growers and gardeners. He describes himself as an “innovator rather than a runner”, meaning he’s the sort of man who spots the next trend before anyone else has noticed.
In an earlier guise he was the first person to produce five tons of wheat per acre, until the grain mountain rang alarm bells. A bird ringer since the age of 15, Chris set up C J WildBird Foods. He sold up and retired once the bird food market “got cluttered”. By then, worried about the decline in bees and other pollinators, he had already acquired red mason bees from The Oxford Bee Company after it got into financial difficulties. In 2012, in need of another project, he set up his own company, Mason Bees UK.
Whittles charges fruit farmers, based as far apart as Kent and Aberdeen, for pollination services in their orchards and collects the bees after the crop has been pollinated. Recently he has also begun to work with volunteer gardeners (Bee Guardians) on a first-come, first-served basis. For a fee (£15-£30) he supplies a nest with breeding tubes and some cocoons. These look rather like dirty cotton wool buds but are pupating overwintering bees. Once the weather warms up the bees emerge and settle into the garden. Chris explains: “They spend 10-14 days dating, mating, playing and finding their territories before they begin pollinating.”
In September, once the bees have filled the tubes with more cocoons, the gardeners send all the tubes back. Whittles cleans them up and keeps the cocoons in the fridge over winter. This enables him to increase his limited stock and keep the bees healthy.
“They’re very portable and very resilient at this stage,” Chris tells me. He keeps any surplus cocoons and redistributes them to new volunteers. Once you’ve bought a nest you get a fresh batch of tubes and some cocoons the following spring. This means a satisfied glow because you’re helping to keep these embattled pollinators in good health, as Chris explains: “Last year was the coldest spring/early summer on record,” he says. “The bees had the worst season we’ve seen due to low temperatures and poor emergence and very low reproduction rates.”
Some years the cocoons are larger than others; experience has taught Chris that this seems to indicate a long winter. Last year the cocoons were small, so he believes that spring this year will be early.
His is a far-sighted venture, because bees are acknowledged to be in decline worldwide. In south-west China farmers have to hand-pollinate fruit crops with paint brushes and pots of pollen because bees are almost non-existent. In America the Natural Resources Defence Council (nrdc.org) recorded that “42 per cent of US bee colonies collapsed in 2015, well above the average 31 per cent that have been dying each winter for nearly a decade”.
This devastating decline is attributed to “skyrocketing use of dangerous pesticides called #neonicotinoids”.
Chris is fascinated by bees, and part of his motivation is concern about the environment. He has spent the past five years “seriously studying red mason bees and working out how they operate and what they’re good at”.
He’s working on commercial pear production in Kent and with Prof Keith Walters of Harper Adams University. He made one fascinating discovery after attending the International Orchard Bee Association Conference in Portland, Oregon, last year.
British red mason bees seem to lack the “walkabout gene” found in most European and American species.
“As soon as their bees are released they lose about 20 per cent straight away, but our #British bees are sedentary in comparison,” Chris says. “They stay put.” It’s often said, for instance, that female red mason bees will roam up to half a mile from their nests. However, there’s no evidence to suggest that Chris’s females go farther than 30 metres, which makes them ideal pollinators in gardens and orchards because they don’t stray far.
The hardest part of Chris’s job is cleaning up the cocoons, because red mason bees are attacked by parasitic flies. “Last year lots were lost due to high levels of the kleptoparasitic fly larvae. One of my volunteer gardeners sent in 50 tubes and we didn’t get one bee out of them.”
However, his most successful volunteer gardener started with 150 and ended up with 1,800 cocoons.
Last year, 100,000 cocoons were sent out to work their magic. In nature most red mason bees appear in time to pollinate apple blossom. Chris’s incubation system allows their emergence to be manipulated. They can be brought forward to pollinate earlier crops, such as pears and plums in mid-March, or held back until mid-May for blueberries and raspberries.
I’m having a nest this year and I’m already looking forward to a bumper crop of ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ and ‘D’Arcy Spice’ apples.
Red mason bee facts
- They’re the only bees legally allowed to be kept on allotments, because they don’t sting.
- They’re fascinating to watch and help the environment by pollinating.
- They collect lots of pollen to pack into individual cells.
- The cells are made from mud – so a source of damp soil in the garden is vital.
- Once the mud cell is pollen-packed, the female lays one egg in the cell, seals it with more mud, then makes the next cell.
- When the tubes are filled with cells full of eggs the females are in the middle of the tube with the males at either end. The males emerge first in spring.
- The best bees are produced in May, boosted by lots of pollen and warmer weather. June bees are not as vigorous.
How to set up a nest
- Find a warm, sunny position among pollen-rich plants for your red mason bee nest. Position it at a height of 1.5m on a wall or a fence.
- The opening of the tube holder should face south to south-east and be angled slightly down for drainage.
- Cold weather can be a problem for the cocoons. If the temperature drops below 5C, bring the tubes back into the warm.
- Send back the tubes for cleaning in September. New cocoons are sent out in spring, usually March.
For further information about the Bee Guardian scheme contact The Mason Bee Company (masonbees.co.uk)