Going Native With Bees

Spring is coming in fast and it seems a lot of folks are thinking about beekeeping.  The first question I ask anyone who comes by the Brookfield Farm market booth and says they want to keep bees is “why?”

For pollination?  For honey? To help the bees?  Because honeybees are great, but our native bees can use our help, and they can help our gardens.

Orchard Mason Bees are tiny bees that do big work in pollination. They don’t sting and are adapted to our local climate.  They do not, however, produce honey.

Bumblebees are the other great pollinator of which I type.  They have their own specialties in pollination, which include their long tongues that can reach into thin,tubular flowers.  Plus they have a whole lot of shaking going on.  We’re talking vibratin’ pollination. Plants like tomatoes,peppers and blueberries need to be a little shook up to release their pollen.  Bumblebees do this, honeybees don’t. Bumblebees are also well suited to fly in cold temperatures. They work long season from sun up to sun down.  They do not, however, produce honey


If you want to collect honey from your own bees, you’ll need honeybees.  I love beekeeping, but you have to really, really want to do it.  If you think $20-$25 for a quart of honey is pricy, tote up the cost of your bees, stands, bottom boards, brood boxes, honey supers, feeders, tops, paint, supplements (if you use them), tools, bee suit, gloves, boots, decapping knife, decapping tub, extractor, buckets and jars.  That’s just the start.   Remember losing one out of every three hives is considered quite normal.  It’s fun.  It’s great. It’s science, nature, art, and just plain luck all rolled into one.  It’s not a cheap way to get honey.  Support your local bees and beekeepers: buy local honey.


As I mentioned above Orchard Mason Bees and Bumblebees are excellent pollinators.  They work in colder weather and they can pollinate some crops far better than honeybees.  They aren’t used a lot in pollination, because a box of honeybees has more bees and is easier to transport in great numbers to multiple locations over the course of the year.

Going Native

There are no native honeybees in North America.  The issue with honeybees disappearing is the issue of agriculture in the US, not the loss of a native species.  Orchard Mason Bees and Bumblebees are natives.  The mason bees are doing fine.  The bumblebees can use our help.

Disappearing Natives

Bumblebees are losing habitat throughout North America.  All those trim expanses of green grass, the yards clear of debris, the plastic mulched gardens.  These are a problem to the bumblebees whose queens need to hibernate in underground burrows. Mace Vaughan, of the Xerces Society (invertebrate conservation) once told me “any habitat that’s good for a mouse is good for a bumblebee”.  Dismissing the battery compartment of my tractor (mouse central), that means woodpiles, tall grasses, and loose soil.

Helping Ourselves and Our “Neighbors”

This is good news if you are, like me, a bit behind in your garden chores.  Relax; you are just building bumblebee habitat.  Even if you are up to date, and like a tidy garden, by including a bit of twigs, loose soil, and tall grass in a corner you can help the bumblebees.   It can also be art.

The mason bees’ like a bit more formal structure.  They lay their eggs in reeds or long holes in wood.  The females collect pollen and nectar, deposit it in a clump, lay an egg, and seal off that area with a mud “wall”.   Then they do it again, laying one egg in each chamber until the tube is filled.  You can make a mason bee house, or you can buy one and the tubes they can use.  You can also buy the mason bees.  Check the end of this blog for those links.

Once there’s habitat, there’s the issue of food.  Regardless of the area you’re in there’s a few key points on planting for native bees.  This is all from the kind folks at the Xerces Society (invertebrate conservation): Plant a lot of native flowers that will give a variety of colors and extend the bloom season as long as you can.  However, plant these so that each species of flower comes up in a solid group, four feet in diameter is the goal.  Once species can follow another so the same ground could be used.  This mass planting of once species makes it easy for bees to find the flowers.  Flowers can range from garden favorites like basil and lavender to such natives as yarrow, fireweed, and snowberry.  A detailed list can be downloaded at Xerces.org

The Native Life Style

These bees may share a penchant for large expanses of single flowers that bloom throughout the year, but after that their lifestyles are quite different.

The Orchard Mason Bees, a.k.a. mason bees, are solitary bees.  Every female makes her own nest, and every female can lay eggs.  When spring temperatures get around 57F (14C) the young bees emerge from their tubes. (I always wonder how long it seems in “bee time” for the bee at the end of the tube: first laid, last out, bummer.) The guys come out first, then hang around waiting for the girls.  When the girls emerge, they mate, and the guys die.  The females go on to start finding nesting areas, then collect pollen and nectar, and begin to lay their eggs.  The adult females then die.  Inside the mud cells in the tubes, the eggs hatch, larvae emerge, turn into pupae, then adults.  These new adults remain in their cells through fall and winter, to emerge in the spring.

Bumblebees are social bees.  There is a queen (the fertile female), males, and female workers. Their colonies can number into the hundreds.  This is much smaller than honeybees, which can number into the tens of thousands.  In the spring the surviving queens emerge from their burrows and begin to build their nests.  These hardy bees will fly at 45F (7C). They gather pollen and nectar, make a little pile of it, then lay 8 to 12 eggs on it.  That gets covered in wax, and they begin again.   3 days after being laid, the eggs hatch as larvae.  They eat and are fed by the queen for 14 days.  They then spin a cocoon and hang out for a few weeks turning into adults who emerge.  The workers work for the group.  The future queens are sought out by the males and mated.  Come winter, the workers will die; while the queens find or build burrows that can extend several inches into the ground (remember that lose soil and debris in the garden?).

More Information To Be Had

That’s the thumbnail description but if you want to learn more check out:

Many Bees:

A 170 page PDF book on native bees and how to work with them and for them at:


Then scroll down to:

Managing Alternative Pollinators: A Handbook for Beekeepers, Growers, and Conservationists

Mason Bees:

Do it yourself nest construction:


then scroll down to Tunnel Nest Construction and Management

http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=10743 building in wood blocks and logs

http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=14404 building in sticks

The Purchase Option: I have never bought from any of these, but they’re there on the web




The first two these sellers has boxes, tubes, and mason bees.  The last has mason bees.

Flowers and more:

Xerces.org is the best place to find information on bees, butterflies, other invertebrates and plants that help many of our native species.  This is a great organization, doing great work, with a great attitude.

That’s about the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.  I should get going on cleaning last year’s honey supers and painting new ones.  What chores are you getting down to as spring rapidly approaches?

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