For bees, the flower is the fountain of life;
For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love.
—Kahlil Gibran, poet (1883-1931)
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I’m a forever fan of the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria); have been ever since I encountered the first one more than twenty years ago. It was during our city years. I’d hung a wind chime, one of those inexpensive bamboo types outside the kitchen window. One afternoon, while at the kitchen sink, I saw what looked like a big fly flying lazy circles around the chimes. The insect was about the size of a horsefly, and had a black body with a touch of iridescent blue.
But something about the fly didn’t look right—in fact, the more I saw, the more un-fly like it became. Because computers didn’t have the information they have today, I thumbed through reference books; that’s right, no e-books, but books with real pages bound with glue or stitching. It was in their pages that I found my mystery fly, which wasn’t a fly at all, but instead, an orchard mason bee!
The orchard mason bee is a docile creature. Males have no stinger, and females rarely sting. I think it’s because she is simply too busy and too exhausted to raise her stinger. After all, she works long hours, from dawn to dusk, even in cool, wet conditions, and visits more than 1,800 blossoms per day!
I made a beeline (pardon the pun) to Portland Nursery. There I found tubes of mason bees, as well as praying mantis egg cases, and bags of ladybugs! The following summer, my urban garden flourished and blossomed. It buzzed with wonderful things. The males emerged first and swarmed. They zigged and zagged from flower to flower. Male mason bees are short-lived, about 2 weeks in which they will feed, pollinate, mate and die. Females live 5 to 8 weeks. That summer, we saw scores of mason bees. Praying mantises hatched along the back fence where they hunted a smorgasbord of insects. And the ladybugs took flight in their quest for aphids on the rose bushes. It was glorious!
Here in the mountains things are different. There are no praying mantises, and few ladybugs, and no mason bees; that is until recently. At the start of spring I hung a bamboo birdhouse from the back porch. I was hoping for a family of chickadees, but instead what I got was a bald-faced hornet—a queen in which I had to plug the entrance to keep her out!
A week later, I noticed a chubby dark insect with iridescent blue buzzing around. It was a mason bee! The first I’ve seen in these woods. Her flight was slow and heavy; after all, she was carrying precious cargo; the next generation of mason bees. Searching for a place to lay her eggs, she found it in the hollow center beam of the bamboo birdhouse. I was ecstatic!
Each day I checked her progress. She grew fat on salmonberry and trillium nectar, and heavy with pollen. All day, she darted between flower and birdhouse. Inside her newfound nesting tube is where the magic happens. Prior to laying an egg, she regurgitates nectar and then deposits the pollen. This she repeats—nectar, pollen, nectar, and pollen until a mound is fashioned. She then lays a single egg on top, and seals the cell with a thin mud plug. This is how she spends her days until all the eggs (as many as 35) are laid. This can take her as long as 5 to 8 weeks, or as it was in this instance, 16 days. When the task is complete, she plugs the ends of the tube with mud a quarter-inch thick. Now with her job completed, she will die.
Now the wait begins. In the weeks to come, if nothing jars the birdhouse so the eggs don’t fall off their food mounds and starve, they will emerge early next spring. I can hardly wait!
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🌿A good reference book, and one of my favorites is the “Orchard Mason Bee” by Brian L. Griffin
🌿Click on the link below for additional information and identification of the orchard mason bee.