For two years, the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District has distributed mason bee nesting boxes to local landowners in order to increase the population of this native species and boost crop yields.
Many people in our community understand the importance of bees as pollinators, thanks in part to research at Oregon State University on colony-collapse disorder and its impacts to the European honey bees (Apis mellifera). But what some may not realize is that our native mason bees (Osmia lignaria) are also in decline, and that they can actually pollinate more than their non-native counterparts.
Landowners who declared themselves Bee Buddies in the first year of the program saw increased pollination with mason bee nesting boxes, increasing their production of early-flowering fruits such as apples, pears, plums, and blueberries. About a quarter of the landowners who signed on for the first year decided to sign up again this year, according to Jerry Paul, one of seven elected directors of BSWCD.
“They’re just really excited, they want the bees back… One mason bee does the work of 100 honey bees, so those 50 bees that I put in the box, even if 25 of them hit that one fruit tree, it might have doubled the crop size,” said Paul.
The Bee Buddy program began when Paul’s own mason bees produced so many offspring hat he didn’t have enough habitat for them on his property. He started giving extra cocoons to neighbors, but still had an overwhelming amount. Eventually Paul approached Heath Keirstead, the BSWCD Community Engagement Manager, about getting mason bees out to the public.
For $30, Bee Buddies receive a handmade mason bee nesting box, mason bee cocoons that hatch in the spring, and a group of experienced mason bee keepers to do all the “heavy lifting” involved in properly harvesting the new cocoons at the end of the season so that they may be used in future years.
Through a citizen science component, the program also seeks to understand mason bee habitat preferences. When a local elementary school asked for BSWCD to attend their science night, Keirstead and Paul thought up another way to include their beloved mason bees. By bundling cut stalks of dried teasel, they created additional nests and brought them to the school to hand out to interested families. But instead of coming with cocoons already inside of them, the teasel bundles were empty, with the hope of attracting local, naturally occurring mason bees to make their home in them.
In the first year, 100 teasel bundles were distributed, each containing 12 stems. 39 participants returned their bundles to BSWCD to count and harvest the new cocoons. While only 57 stems came back to the office full of cocoons, mapping where these bundles were located may give an idea of where the local mason bees already are living around town. The result?
It seems that bees may prefer areas closer to the city borders and open spaces. This makes sense, according to Keirstead, considering that “prairie plants and prairie habitats are really great pollinator habitats”. However, she warns, “we can’t get a full picture from the citizen science project, because the bees might just not use what we’re putting out there. So they could be there and just not use the teasel bundles.”
Though the information gathered from the project is not comprehensive, collecting cocoons of local mason bees has another benefit. When these cocoons are added to the Bee Buddy nesting boxes being distributed, locally adapted genes are incorporated into the new population.
Since populations of mason bees experience differences in environmental conditions across their range, incorporating local genetics should build a population that is well suited to the conditions they will face here.
For Paul, the Bee Buddies program is perhaps most important because of the many environmental issues it brings to light.
“That little black bee is an ambassador to a lot of other things – global warming, native plants – there’s a lot of different things you can talk about using that little bee as the core for things,” he said.
Holding the mason bee as a mascot, one can learn a lot about they ought to treat the world they live in.
To apply to be a Bee Buddy next year, call BSWCD at 541-753-7208, visit them in person at 456 Monroe Ave, Suite 110, or on their website at www.bentonswcd.org/activities/
For information on what you can do to help native pollinators without getting a nesting box, BSWCD has a plethora of resources for you at their office and on their website as well.