Santa Fe gardener builds houses for industrious mason bees
Santa Fe residents Larry and Debbie Brizendine build tiny houses. Really tiny houses. But the houses are large enough for several dozen mason bees to live in — each in its own “apartment.”
“They are made of bamboo and last several years,” said Larry Brizendine, an electrical designer who has been constructing bee houses for about five years and donates them to the Galveston County Master Gardeners organization to sell at its bi-annual plant sale. “They fly off the shelf each year.”
Mason bees are larger and hairier than honey bees, but they’re the best neighbors a gardener can have. They’re solitary, meaning they don’t live in a hive, and their entire mission in life is to pollinate — all day, every day.
Best of all, mason bees aren’t aggressive to humans unless seriously threatened, and if they do sting, it isn’t much worse than a mosquito bite.
There are 4,000 bee species in North America, and about 140 of those are mason bees. They have been categorized as masons because they use mud or masonry products for their nests, which in nature are found in crevices in rocks or dark cavities. But they’re also attracted to the type of mason bee houses Brizendine builds and return to their nests each day.
These gentle bees, which are a metallic blue or blue-black in color and resemble a large fly, flit around the garden indiscriminately pollinating a variety of flowers and plants. Unlike honey bees that gather pollen carefully on their legs, the mason bees do a belly-flop into the stamen of the flower, covering its underside with pollen and then distributing it into the next plant. A mason bee can pollinate hundreds of flowers in a day, everything from a dandelion to a fruit tree bloom. Consider this: a fruit tree orchard needs about 30,000 honeybees to pollinate the grove. A mere 400 mason bees can do the same job in the same amount of time.
These docile and industrious bees can take the pressure off the honeybee population, which is under severe strain. Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies from April 2015 to April 2016, according to beeinformed.org. A loss of pollinators is a direct threat to the food supply.
Mason bees don’t live long. The male emerges from its cocoon and lives only two weeks with its sole purpose of mating with the female. The female, larger than the male, lives about six weeks, does all the pollinating, food foraging, egg laying and nest building. They’re gregarious insects and like living next to each other, but not in the same chamber.
It isn’t difficult to hire these workers. They are prevalent in the Gulf Coast area and eager to work. They live in the cracks and rock crevices naturally, but gardeners can easily provide homes similar to the ones the Brizendines make. The bee house is for the female to lay her eggs. She enters a narrow tube — a bit wider than a pencil — and lines the nest with pollen, lays her egg and then closes that cell with mud. The mother bee repeats this process over and over, until the tunnel is filled with individual nests. The larvae feeds on the pollen inside the tube. The eggs in the back of the tunnel will become female bees; the males come from the eggs near the front. When the eggs hatch and reach adult stage, they chew their way to the tube entrance, crossing through the other nests.
To create a mason bee house, use either rolled paper, about ½-inch thick and about 6 inches long, or select dried bamboo shoots or reeds as the tunnels for the bees. The bamboo should be dried out at least six months so it won’t shrink once placed inside the structure. Only one end of the tunnel should be open, Brizendine said. Assemble all the tubes into one “house” — it can be a rectangle, triangle, circular or any shape in which the tubes are snugly fitted so they don’t move around or get wet. Hang the bee haven either on a wall or dangle from a nearby fruit or blossoming tree, facing east to the sunrise and the bees will find it. It can be moved indoors in the winter to avoid predators or mites while the eggs inside are maturing.
I make them and donate them and everyone seems to like them.” – Larry Brizendine
Bamboo is preferred over paper because the tubes can be cleaned and sanitized between seasons. Brizendine builds the house from cedar wood, which never needs painting and naturally ages in time. He also uses pine, which should be primed and painted to keep the wood from rotting, he said.
“Just make sure they don’t get wet,” he said.
Brizendine suggests constructing a roof with a bit of an overhang to protect the nesting bees.
To ensure the bees’ safety, don’t spray pesticides or herbicides in the area. Be sure there’s a place where the bees can find clay soil or even a clay-based kitty litter to use as masonry. Remember, they’re native pollinators and prefer native plants, but will help pollinate almost anything that blooms.
This year, perhaps, Brizendine might even get to keep one of the bee houses he makes. They don’t have any in their own garden, Debbie said.
“I make them and donate them and everyone seems to like them,” he said.