Garden Basics with Farmer Fred

306 Q&A Mason Bee Basics

February 06, 2024 Fred Hoffman Season 5 Episode 8
Garden Basics with Farmer Fred
306 Q&A Mason Bee Basics
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Sacramento County Master Gardener and orchardist Quentyn Young answers a question from Missouri  about raising mason bees, an excellent garden pollinator (better than honeybees!).

Mason Bee Basics, Pt. 1    0:23
Mason Bee Basics, Pt. 2  11:06

Previous episodes, show notes, links, product information, and transcripts at the home site for Garden Basics with Farmer Fred, Transcripts and episode chapters also available at Buzzsprout.

Pictured:  Mason Bee Houses in Barcelona, Spain

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Smart Pots
Dave Wilson Nursery

Master Gardener Quentyn Young: “Mason Bees” Video

Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, Sacramento Co., California

Pennsylvania State University: Mason Bees for Pollination

Insectary Plants (UC-IPM)

Farmer Fred Rant Blog: “Bring on the Bees”

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TRANSCRIPT 306 Q&A Mason Bees

Farmer Fred  0:02  

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of the Garden Basics with Farmer Fred podcast. On Tuesdays, we answer your garden questions. And we're brought to you by Smart Pots, the original lightweight, long-lasting, fabric plant container. Visit smart to find out more, and get a special discount. All right, let's get into your questions. 


Farmer Fred

Here on the Tuesday edition of the Garden Basics podcast, we answer your garden questions. They're not long podcasts. Some of our answers, though, may be long. How do you get your question in? There’s  a lot of ways. You can give us a call 916-292-8964. You can leave an audio question without making a phone call by going to speakpipe on your computer, it’s Then yell that question at your computer to us. You can also use email, Fred at Or you can fill in the contact box at our homepage, with your question, but we would really prefer to hear your voice also. No matter how you get the question in, please tell us where you are. Because all gardening is local. And that'll help us refine our answers to be more accurate in your benefit. 

Today's question comes from Joshua, he lives in southwest Missouri, and he is eager. He says, “Hey Fred, I'm getting close to buying some land and I'm planning on clearing out trees in the woods and planting some annual vegetables on the south side, and planting a food forest on the north side. I figured the wooded plot would be best for planting because it's been decomposing and building topsoil all this time. I also plan on putting out mason bee houses throughout the food forest to pollinate all the fruit and nut trees. My questions are:  Will all the stumps and roots of the trees in the ground, the trees are oaks, maples, and elms, will these pose a problem for me planting things?” Quick answer, yes. 

“Also, do you have any episodes about Native mason bees for pollination instead of honey bees? I'd like to learn more from a standpoint on how to take care of them, especially on taking care of the mason bee homes themselves. I'm having trouble drilling the holes in a straight line and don't know if I should be using a different tool.”

He has other questions about mason bees. He asked how to clean the cocoons from mites that would accumulate? How to tell what is a mason bee and what is a wasp cocoon? How to store the cocoons overwinter? Would it be okay to store them in the refrigerator? Well guess what, Joshua, here's your mason bee primer courtesy of Quentyn Young, Sacramento County Master Gardener. He also has an excellent little video on YouTube that we will link to in today's episode, it's on  the Sacramento County Master Gardener YouTube page. And it's all about mason bees. And another good online site to check out is Pennsylvania State University. They have a very, very good page about mason bees and orchard pollination. That information could answer a lot of your questions if we don't get to it here. So definitely check out that Penn State site called “Using solitary bees”. That would include mason bees, and again we'll have that link. Q, you have experience with Mason bees and mason bee houses. You've got some up at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. I guess we should first of all define what a mason bee is, and why it would be superior to a honey bee in regards to pollination.

Quentyn Young  3:38  

So, the Mason bees are native to the Americas. So that's important; they're used to our environment. Not that I have anything against honey bees. They're great, but they were brought over by European colonists. They have a sort of a more narrow range of daylight hours and temperature when they are out foraging for pollen. The mason bees will come out when it's cooler and not as light. They're solitary bees, they're very busy. Because they don't have a hive, they don't have really anything to protect. So they won't be  as prone to stinging like a honeybee would be. And the mason bees are excellent for pollinating early flowering crops because they only have one generation per year. So it's a little bit easier to take care of because basically you just have to create an environment that promotes them, and hopefully they'll stick around.

Farmer Fred  4:29  

Exactly. And as far as pollination goes, from my understanding of it, they aren't the social bee. They don't live in giant hives. It's just basically families of mason bees by themselves, and they can carry a lot more pollen because unlike honey bees, who have to fly back every few minutes to take more food for their constantly growing tribe. The mason bee, which is a solitary bee, will even though it's solitary, it does have a family, they are able to be out for a longer period of time and to carry a lot more pollen. So that's why they're considered, I guess, better pollinators. 

Quentyn Young  5:03  

Yes,, it is primarily the females that do most of the pollen carrying, because they're bringing it back to their little nesting tube to make a little pollen egg that they're going to be laying next to their insect eggs.

Farmer Fred  5:18  

And, they're used more and more in pollinating orchards. I know the farmers of California are investigating using the native blue orchard bee as a commercial pollinator of almonds in our state. 

Quentyn Young

That's correct. 

Farmer Fred

The Japanese orchard bee has been used to pollinate most of the apple crop in Japan for more than 80 years, and recently in Korea. But I think when it comes to providing them not only a home, but they need pollen and nectar to survive, and it may not just be on what you may be growing. And that's why in California, especially, and we're seeing it a lot in the Midwest as well, are hedgerows, which are basically rows of pollinating crops, if you will. The “good bug hotels” that can line an entire farm. 

Quentyn Young  6:05  

Exactly, they also serve as windbreaks, and they are habitat for a lot of other beneficial insects. Also for birds who are great at keeping insect populations down in your garden. So  the hedgerows have multiple uses. And then like you said, you want to create an environment with flower or flowering plants with pollen and nectar. So you want to sort of develop a concept called  an insectary, where you're always basically having something in bloom. We're lucky in California. It’s maybe 12 months of the year we have something in bloom that's attracting pollinators to the garden.

Farmer Fred  6:44  

I have a pretty thorough report at the Farmer Fred Rant blog page called, “Bring on the Bees”. It's a year round list of what plants are in bloom that attract bees here in USDA zone nine. And I noticed that the Missouri Botanical Garden, which would be a little closer to Joshua, who lives in southwest Missouri, they have a page called native plants to attract bees. And I think that's a key for attracting bees to anybody's yard. If you want native bees, you got to use native plants. That's what they're attracted to. 

Quentyn Young  7:15  

Oh yeah. Always start with your local resources. So you know, we're Master Gardeners here for like you said, Zone nine. And I would always say, wherever you are in the country, go to your county extension office. See if you've got a Master Gardener group and that would always be the first group of people I would talk to. 

Farmer Fred  7:35  

Among the plants recommended in Missouri as far as native plants to attract bees, here’s a list. They talk about pussy toes, devils walking stick, the Purple coneflower, tall boneset, The Spotted Joe Pye weed, and the common Joe Pye weed, common boneset, Wild Bergamot, ninebark, clustered Mountain Mint, Sassafrass, figwort, the cup plant,  the New England aster, and the aromatic Aster as well as basswood and the white basswood. We are not really all that familiar with those here in California, but in the Midwest, where they're native plants, you're gonna get those native pollinators. 

Quentyn Young  8:12  

yep, I grew up in Ohio with a sassafras tree  right outside our house. So yeah, definitely. That list brings back a lot of memories. 

Farmer Fred  8:19  

And you can make a hedge row out of all those plants. And I think that's the key to a hedge row: It is  a combination of plants. You got low growing plants, you've got tall plants, you've got annuals, you got perennials, you got shrubs, you've got trees, and all will be blooming at different times of the year.

Quentyn Young  8:35  

Exactly. We forget that when you have a lawn, it’s really not very inviting to wildlife, especially birds. There's no cover for them. But if you ever watch just really quietly, watch a hedge row. You'll see how much activity there is of insects and birds, frogs, things like that, just going in and out. It's a great way to bring wildlife back into your garden or yard.

Farmer Fred  8:59  

Exactly. Yeah, it's not just for farms you can put in a wide variety of plants in your own yard that will keep the pollinators around a year round if they so desire. Yeah. 


Farmer Fred

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Farmer Fred

All right, so back to Joshua's question about mason bees. So they are good, but they need a place to live. And normally, I guess, they live in hollow-stemmed plants.

Quentyn Young  11:20  

Yes, hollow stem plants and basically a lot of  beetle holes. I mean,  they've been surviving for quite some time without our help. But building a bee house is a great way to kind of support them and bring them into your garden.

Farmer Fred  11:31  

Mason bee houses. They certainly do look interesting. You know the ones you have hanging out at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, they're not that large. And they have holes in them that are, what, about six to eight inches deep?

Quentyn Young  11:44  

Yeah, you want to shoot for six to eight inches in depth. Anything shorter than that, then what will apparently happen is the female, when she lays her eggs, will primarily  lay eggs that hatch into males. So you want to develop a good six to eight inch depth for  your hole. And then at the Hort Center, we have made them out of a number of different things just to show the public. We have some that are store bought, we have  one of them that is a repurposed stump from a Christmas tree. Another one is like a large can that spaghetti sauce would come in. And then we bought the cardboard tubes that we put in there. So we have a number of different ideas that the public can basically just look at and copy themselves. And there's lots of lots of good resources on the internet, too. But six to eight inches is the preferred depth. Right.

Farmer Fred  12:31  

And like I mentioned, that Pennsylvania State website, called “Orchard Pollination: Solitary Mason Bees” has information not only about the bees, but also about the mason bee homes too. And that's a good thing to refer to. Interesting things about those holes that you'd be drilling in wood: they have to be one way holes, they can't go out the other side of the wood. 

Quentyn Young

That is correct. 

Farmer Fred

Because I guess some somebody would escape or some critter would come in that they don't want. And that's one of the problems with Mason bees, isn't it? Those others that want to come in? 

Quentyn Young  13:06  

Yes. On one of them, for instance, we have kind of a covering, I would call it hardware wire or chicken wire. It's smaller than the chicken wire, the spacing, but you can you could cover it like that it looks almost like a fencing mask concept where the bees can go in and out. But let's say birds couldn’t, if you are worried about them. The only other issue that some people are concerned about is sometimes wasps will colonize the bee boxes. But one time that I was at the Hort Center watching a wasp sort of move into one of the tubes. He was actually, maybe it was a she, I'm not sure, but was bringing in a healthy crop of red humped caterpillars. So i in my head, they were doing a great job of pest control, because the red humped caterpillars at the Hort Center are really good at stripping plums and pluots. So I have no qualms about giving the wasp a couple of spaces to build their nests too.

Farmer Fred  14:01  

I guess as long as everybody gets along.  But diseases can be a problem as well, can't they, with Mason bees? 

Quentyn Young  14:09  

Yeah, you might see the same problems.  I'm not sure if it's the same,  but you might have the same problem with honey bees. So you do occasionally want to try to clean your nest or make sure that you have sort of the disposable paper tubes. And for that same reason you do not want to reuse plastic straws. They retain too much moisture, and you'll have a mold problem or a fungal problem. Ideally you do want the paper tubes that are reusable but also disposable and when you've used them for a season before you throw them out.

Farmer Fred  14:37  

If you're doing this in the winter, do you want to save the cocoons of the baby mason bees?

Quentyn Young  14:45  

Yeah, and if you remember as a kid,  we used to unwrap the straws, kind of like on a diagonal slant and you kind of unwrap them. That's the same with these tubes. You unwrap them. You take out the cocoons you put them in a little  nest of a Paper towel, and you put that in a Tupperware container, and then you put that in the fridge. You can keep them over winter. And then that allows you to clean out the house. Depending on the bee house that you have, they can be quite elaborate in terms of, let's say stacked layers that you can take apart, clean them, store them somewhere where they're not going to be colonized by another insect, then put them out again, in the late winter, or early spring.

Farmer Fred  15:25  

But I guess if you're making your own mason bee house and you're using wood, you want to be able to take apart that wood in order to clean those channels. So that involves, I guess, clamping or screwing together two pieces of wood and drilling the holes along where the two pieces of wood meet. 

Quentyn Young  15:46  

Yes. And  if you look online, you'll see some different examples. Some of them will have sort of like a vise type contraption that squeezes the stack layers together. But yeah, that'll definitely help to be able to clean them. Or you could like in one case that I have, let's say the size of an orange juice can, I just fill that entire can with the paper tubes, and just make them very tight so they couldn't move. And then that way I can take those tubes out when I'm ready. But I don't have to  do the whole concept of the stack layers of a wooden house.

Farmer Fred  16:20  

Oh, right. But if you do have that wood house, and you do want to somehow sanitize it, I guess  a light bleach solution would work. 

Quentyn Young  16:28  

Yeah, yeah, with a good stiff brush. Yeah, clean it out.

Farmer Fred  16:30  

Okay, because these mason bees will reuse the same mason bee house year after year, won't they? 

Quentyn Young  16:38  

Yeah, you want to have it in roughly  the same spot. You want to make sure that unlike that cute little birdhouse at a store that has a hook that you just hang on the tree, you don't want to have that same setup. You want to affix the mason bee house to something solid that does not move. If it's moving the bee won't take up residence there. They need a stable structure because they need to be able to lay their egg and put that little ball of pollen either on the egg or right next to the egg so that when that egg hatches, it can immediately find food. If your house is swaying and moving, that's not going to be a good setup. So we have ours affixed to the south side of a tool shed so that they stay  nice and warm. That'll definitely help as well. And then we want to have somewhere nearby where there is access to mud, so that the females can make that little plug to seal up each chamber as they're laying their egg and putting a little ball  in there.

Farmer Fred  17:38  

Oh, so that's important too, to have maybe a water feature, a natural water feature, somewhere where they can get wet dirt.

Quentyn Young  17:44  

We will just sort of get into the habit of spraying  a bare patch of dirt. Every time we're doing some work out there.

Farmer Fred  17:51  

Do you bring in  the mason bee houses during the winter? Or can you leave them hanging?

Quentyn Young  17:57  

You can leave them in place if you want. 

Farmer Fred  18:01  

Okay, I noticed that in some of the websites they  do  mention to bring the mason bee houses in  if you're having trouble with parasitic wasps. Bring them into an unheated building like a barn or a garage and hang them, with the holes facing up in order to dissuade any parasitic wasps.

Quentyn Young  18:21  

I can see that being a good idea.

Farmer Fred  18:23  

Okay, that's seems like a lot of work to me. But whatever, because these bees will come back. And according to Penn State, the population will grow as much as 10 fold in one year. 

Quentyn Young  18:35  

I think if you have the right setup for them,  that sounds pretty reasonable, especially if you've got a food source for them. 

Farmer Fred  18:41  

So these mason bee tubes, though, they would require a lot. I was reading somewhere where each female bee needs three to five empty nest tubes.

Quentyn Young  18:50  

Yeah, that makes sense. Because she's gonna be busy. They have one lifecycle per year. So she's gonna fill up those tubes, and then she'll be done.

Farmer Fred  18:59  

And then move on to wherever bees go when they die. 

Quentyn Young

Yeah, bee heaven. 

Farmer Fred

Mason bee homes, you can buy them, you can build them. And then like you said, there is a lot of good resources online where you can find more information about it and more and more gardeners are getting wise to the benefits of having native bees working their crops. Farmers are homing in on this too, because unlike European honey bees, if they're pollinating, say, an orchard of almond trees, European honeybees will go straight down the row, one after another. That's not the greatest for pollination purposes.

Quentyn Young  19:43  

Yeah, you want to have as much cross pollination between crops as possible.

Farmer Fred  19:50  

And that's where the native bees come in. Because they're solitary, they're wanderin,g they'll flit about between rows. And they will pick up some pollen from one variety and get the pollen from another variety or pass it on to a different variety.

Quentyn Young  20:05  

Yeah, and they don't mind the cold cloudy days, like the European honeybees do. 

Farmer Fred  20:09  

I was reading that. too. That they tend to start working a little bit earlier in the year, early to mid April is usually the time when they begin to fly, or I should say  when the apricot bloom happens. And  that depends where you live. 

Quentyn Young  20:24  

Yeah, it depends on where you live. And so hopefully you'll get  that perfect timing of bees hatching and fruit trees blooming.

Farmer Fred  20:30  

Right. Early to mid April for an apricot bloom would be in Missouri or Pennsylvania State, back east. Here in California, that would be a little late for the apricot. The apricot is an old phenological sign for a lot of old gardeners and old farmers. When the Prunus mume, which is a variety of apricot, when that's in bloom, that's your last best opportunity to apply a spray, if you're spraying for disease control. 

Quentyn Young  21:00  

Yeah, that's a very early bloomer. 

Farmer Fred  21:03  

Here, it’s like  mid February. 

Quentyn Young  21:05  

And it really pretty, and ornamental too.

Farmer Fred  21:07  

Yeah. Well,  that's a whole other episode we could do.

Quentyn Young  21:12  

It does produce edible fruit. So  that's the one you can get the pickled sour plums from. 

Farmer Fred  21:17  

Oh, really? The Prunus mume?  Well, that's good to know. Did we leave anything out that Joshua needs to know about mason bees?

Quentyn Young  21:25  

I don't think so. I think we've covered most everything. 

Farmer Fred  21:28  

I think one thing we should mention though, is if you're in a hurry to acquire mason bees, be careful where you're getting the cocoons. You don't want to get them from out of state. Penn State reported that cocoons from California don't do too well in Pennsylvania's environment. 

Quentyn Young  21:44  

You want to shop  local, ideally from a local population. So they've been  situated for your environment. 

Farmer Fred  21:52  

And you're not importing a disease from someplace else either.  So only acquire bees from local sources if you're going that route. But it sounds like, if you build it, they will come.

Quentyn Young  22:04  

Yes, exactly. Build it. If you build it, they will come. Just  make sure that you've created an environment as welcoming for them.

Farmer Fred  22:10  

Yeah, build those “good bug hotels”. And it’s  like I said in the Farmer Fred Rant blog report, “Bringing on the Bees”. I've got advice on constructing, if you will, the neon signs of attractive plants for those pollinators who just happen to be traveling by, and they'll see it and stop, and do something.  Alright. Sacramento County Master Gardener Quentyn Young, noted horticulturist and orchardist. He helps run the orchard there at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. If you're ever in Fair Oaks, California, a suburb of Sacramento, and there's an Open Garden day on a Saturday,  check it out and get some good ideas for your own garden. Quentyn thanks for your help on Mason bees.

Quentyn Young  22:49  

Thanks for having me on, Fred.

Farmer Fred  22:53  

Garden Basics With Farmer Fred comes out every Tuesday and Friday and is brought to you by Smart Pots and Dave Wilson Nursery. Garden Basics is available wherever podcasts are handed out. For more information about the podcast, visit our website, GardenBasics dot net. That’s where you can find out about the free, Garden Basics newsletter, Beyond the Basics. And thank you so much for listening.

Mason Bee Basics, Pt. 1
Mason Bee Basics, Pt. 2