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Ask a Gardener: Mason bees are a friendly pollinator

Mason bees, which are non-aggressive and rarely sting, look rather like a harmless house fly. They emerge from their cocoons early in the spring, pollinating anything that is blooming.
Mason bees, which are non-aggressive and rarely sting, look rather like a harmless house fly. They emerge from their cocoons early in the spring, pollinating anything that is blooming. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

It’s a problem not too many gardeners will ever encounter: too many pollinators in the garden. Yet when Missy Anderson, otherwise known as “Queen Bee,” started with 100 mason bees that in 15 years had become nearly 100,000, she knew she had to do something.

Missy was first introduced to mason bees by a friend in the fall of 2000. The more she learned, the more she was taken by them. She gave her first Mason bee presentation to a Master Gardener class in 2006. It launched her speaking career. She now speaks all over the Puget Sound, including King, Pierce, Snohomish, Island and Whatcom counties, touting the virtues of native mason bees.

So why are native mason bees the latest concern? For one thing, like bees of all kinds, they are at risk with increased levels of pesticide use, as well as habitat destruction. Mason bees are non-aggressive and rarely sting. These bees look rather like a harmless house fly. They emerge from their cocoons early in the spring, pollinating anything that is blooming. If you like plums as much as I do, that’s one tree often missed by the honeybees, as they come out too late. Weather permitting, some credit goes to mason bees for your plums.

As Missy’s interest in mason bees grew, she found herself excited. Beginning in 2005, with too many mason bees for her backyard, she began offering houses and bees to friends and family. She and her husband were building the houses and making the paper tubes. In the fall she (and a few volunteers) would open the tubes and clean the bee cocoons. Over the next three years Missy was driving 1,500 miles to deliver and pick up the bees to 100 families. This became overwhelming so she asked that people pick and drop off the kits at her house.

Finally a friend remarked that she was certainly doing a lot of work and that she should charge for the service. This began the “Rent Mason Bees” project. For a small fee, she provides pollination supplies: cleaned cocoons, nesting block and house to protect it from the rain. Three sizes are available: small, 50 bees, $25; medium, 100 bees, $50; and large, 200 bees, $75.

Clients get their kits from Missy near the end of March, install the kits in their yard or garden, watch the industrious pollinators in action, then when the adult bees of that year die off, the kits are returned to Missy, usually in early June.

By 2014 the number of families had grown to about 300 and Missy knew she could no longer do it all. In January 2015 Missy’s ownership of the company went to Jim Watts of Watts Solitary Bees. Jim has been growing leafcutter bees for agriculture for decades. Working together, Missy and Jim are guiding Rent Mason Bees to an ever-increasing customer base. Beginning in 2016 Rent Mason Bees will offer pick up and return sites in West Seattle, Issaquah/Redmond, Kent/Maple Valley, and Ballard. If more people to the north want to rent mason bees (50 minimum families) additional sites are possible.

Though mason bees do not replace honeybees, they have their own slice of the pollinator pie. Without mason bees, countless plants would not get pollinated. Missy is offering an invaluable service. You don’t need much to get started: 1) a dry, sunny place to hang the nest; 2) spring pollen-bearing plants (Big leaf maple trees are fabulous); and 3) mud (used to seal each egg in the nesting block.)

Helping mason bees is an easy, interesting and fun way to help our environment. It’s a great activity for kids, big or little. And speaking of kids, Missy is partnering with Girl Scouts of Western Washington. She has created a patch program and a number of activities along with hosting a mason bee kit. Details at facebook.com/groups/KingCountyGSWW/.

Missy will be speaking about mason bees at the monthly educational meeting for the general public put on by the Master Gardeners on March 10. She will speak at 7 p.m. at 1000 N. Forest St., Suite 201. If you’re looking for more information and details about The Queen Bee’s program, check the website rentmasonbees.com or mail questions to queenbee@rentmasonbees.com.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com. For more gardening information online, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html.

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