A mason bee condo won’t “save the bees”
If you want to save the mammals, you could adopt a pig. Although it sounds like fun, adopting a pig won’t save endangered mammals such as the polar bear, the Pacific pocket mouse, the American pika, or the Canada lynx. It’s a silly idea. Similarly, adopting an orchard mason bee won’t save the hundreds of endangered bee species that are faltering in every corner of the globe. It’s an equally silly idea.
Like the pig, the orchard mason bee is an agriculturally important species that is in no danger of extinction. In fact, orchard mason bees—like honey bees, alfalfa leafcutting bees, and some bumble bees—have been so manipulated by mankind they have more in common with livestock than with wildlife. Mason cocoons are extracted, collected, washed, rubbed, bleached, refrigerated, stored, and shipped—hardly “natural” beekeeping. Yet the idea persists that cultivating these agro-bees is somehow saving the planet.
Whenever we select and promote one species over another, we run into problems. The more intensely we manage the chosen species, the quicker the problems multiply. The reason? Nature hates a monoculture.
The danger of monoculture
I frequently write about logic-based beekeeping—the idea that you already know many things from your life experience that can make you a better beekeeper. The danger of monoculture is one of the things you already know.
Throughout recorded history, human disease has spread most quickly whenever large populations are in close quarters. Think of small pox, black plague, malaria, cholera, and typhoid. In animal populations, diseases are rampant in feedlots and overcrowded pastures. Plant disease spreads fastest in monocropped fields where each plant has the same genetic deficiencies, and insect pests bloom in large number because more food is available right next to the plant they just devoured.
In the eastern states, we planted the magnificent American elm to adorn the streets and parks. It was lovely and graceful, and the limbs were high enough not to interfere with traffic or parking. When Dutch elm disease struck, the planting pattern acting like a transmission line, guiding the disease through a conduit of trees until none were left.
The balance of nature
Nature doesn’t do things that way; nature mixes things up. In an undisturbed habitat, a variety of creatures live with a variety of plants. A series of checks and balances ensures that one species doesn’t dominate to the detriment of another.
Plants produce and animals consume. Some animals eat others, and those in turn are eaten. Things die and others decompose them. Ecologists used to call this system the “balance of nature,” a phrase that fell out of favor when we realized that systems always evolve and therefore are not perfectly balanced. Still, nature has a bead on how to do it right. When we stray too far from the natural model, some things die and some go extinct.
If you really want to save the native bees, you do not promote one species over another, and you do not raise monocultures. Fifty mason bee tubes together in a box is a monoculture that will give rise to legions of hairy-footed mites. Alfalfa leafcutting bees raised in groups will die of chalkbrood disease. Bumble bees raised for greenhouse pollination suffer from Nosema bombi, and honey bee colonies brought together for almond pollination are subject to an alphabet soup of ailments they get to share.
In nature, bees are scattered. The bumble bee’s closest neighbor may be a sweat bee. On the other side of a sweat bee lives a Habropoda. Overhead, a carpenter bee may thrive, and down the hillside lives an Andrena. Since many diseases, parasites, and pathogens are species specific, the afflictions can’t run wild through the countryside. Instead the diseases show up occasionally and then disappear, sometimes for years at a time. But put too many identical organisms side-by-side and the diseases, parasites, and pathogens spread like rumors.
Viruses can’t be washed away
Worse, we like to ship these disease-infested bees all over the map. When we release those bees in a new environment, they bring all the devastation with them. With mason bees, some folks naively clean the cocoons of hairy-footed mites before they send them off. While the cleaning does indeed limit the hairy-footed mite, the viral diseases are inside the body of the developing bee. New research shows that many viral diseases are spread by pollen, so when the developing larva eats its provision of pollen, it also consumes the virus—and all before it spins a cocoon.
For this reason, the gardener or bee lover should never ship bees or buy bees that have been shipped. If you want to attract mason bees, you can put up housing that will attract the ones that live near you already. Believe me, they are there and they will come.
Biodiversity: the gold standard
Secondly, any housing you install should have tunnels of mixed sizes. Multiple sizes attract multiple species and multiple species limit disease transmission. Next door to an orchard mason bee you may get a potter wasp or a wool carder. Yes, you may get some enemies that eat one another, but that’s okay. That’s part of the balance you are looking for, the hallmark of a healthy ecosystem.
Another beauty of mixed species habitat is that it is active all season. Orchard masons are one of the first, and they are active about six weeks. But as the orchard masons are winding down for the year, others begin. Not only does this make bee watching more fun, but the difference in active times also helps reduce disease transmission. Bees that are active in different seasons are unlikely to share diseases among themselves. Before you build pollinator housing, think about what you already know. Biodiversity, the variety of living things in a given area, is the key to a healthy environment.
Lastly, if you really want to help native bees—70% of which live underground and are not interested in little structures—you need only remember three things: plant more flowers, use fewer pesticides, and leave some areas undisturbed. Given that, your native bees will thrive.