wild bees and native bees

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.



One of my treatment-free mason bees. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • That’s a great post, Rusty. Excellent advice as always. I’m watching all of the linden trees on my street dying out from age…they were all planted at approximately the same time, and in the past year, 5 have died, and several more were looking unhealthy in the fall–and I hate to see my street losing all of the mature trees. Monoculture is just a bad idea.

  • Thanks for the post, Rusty. I’ve been thinking of trying to make some habitat for native bees. I’ve read that drilling different sized holes in a wood block is a good way to build the type of variety you mention. If you have suggestions for encouraging native bee survival (other than plantings, of course), would love to hear about it in a future post.

    • Erik,

      You might try using the Google Custom Search Box on my site. I’ve got dozens of posts on native bees and how to attract them.

  • Hmmm… like some people buy package bees every year, I’ve been buying mason bee cocoons. I’ve bought from various suppliers, trying different types of mason bees, some in tubes, some loose cocoons. There aren’t a lot of sellers but I do try to buy bees from my region.

    For some reason I’m opposed to buying package honey bees but never hesitate with mason bees. If the mason bees I buy disperse or don’t fill my tubes for whatever reason, buying more mason bees guarantees me at least some fun the next Spring.

    • HB,

      I bought mason bees in tubes one time and they hatched with mites, so I never bought them again. I’ve been putting out housing of various types to attract the locals. It was slow at first, but now I have zillions. Today was warm and sunny, and I had more male masons than honey bees darting around the backyard. It was kind of awesome. I net them when I can, check for mites, and then release. So far mite free! I do think local populations are more adapted to local conditions. I no longer buy honey bee packages or queens either; just too many bad experiences and my local queens seem to overwinter better.

      • My males are just emerging. I’m going to try to net one and check. I think the one thing I will do this year is protect the tubes as soon as possible, not let those darn Chalcid wasps ruin everything again. If I could be more successful in preventing them, I’d quit buying cocoons for sure.

  • There’s a new study out about solitary bee hotels, have you seen it?

    ‘Bee Hotels’ as Tools for Native Pollinator Conservation: A Premature Verdict? http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0122126

    “At their worst, bee hotels may act as population sinks for bees through facilitating the increase of parasites, predators, and diseases as a result of functional responses to unnaturally high nest densities and nesting site entrances set up in two-dimensions rather than in the more three dimensional arrangement found in nature. ”

    “From a survey of almost 600 bee hotels set up over a period of three years in Toronto, Canada, introduced bees nested at 32.9% of sites and represented 24.6% of more than 27,000 total bees and wasps recorded (47.1% of all bees recorded). Native bees were parasitized more than introduced bees and females of introduced bee species provisioned nests with significantly more female larva each year. Native wasps were significantly more abundant than both native and introduced bees and occupied almost 3/4 of all bee hotels each year; further, introduced wasps were the only group to significantly increase in relative abundance year over year.”

    • Emily,

      I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds like they mixed introduced bees with the natives on location? I wonder why? It would seem to make it harder to get good data. Anyway, I will read it and maybe it will then become clear. Thanks for the link.

  • Great advice, thanks Rusty!
    Wouldn’t you think they could figure out a way to interplant, with the almond trees, some other profitable species so the bees could live there year-round instead of just the three weeks of almond bloom? In Napa, they have Yellow Rocket growing between the grape trellises. Mustards help eliminate soil fungus and are excellent early bee forage as well as suppressing noxious weeds.

    Afghanistan “The Orchard of Asia” In Rudyard Kipling’s era, was the world’s main source of almonds. Wonder how they managed pollination? Diversity of cultivation, most likely.

    • Nan,

      I fear they spray so much that bees that can’t be physically moved out just die. It’s hard to find organic almonds.

  • I sometimes go into schools to talk to the youngsters about honey bees. I often ask them what their absolutely most favourite food is. Whatever they reply I ask them to imagine eating only that food and go on to explain how soon their body would complain and they would become sick. They do quickly grasp the point. Pity these monoculturists don’t/can’t do the same.

    I will not buy certain food products from USA sources because of the way bees are treated and shipped 1000’s of mile to pollinate acres of monoculture crops. I do not think it is good for the bees.

    I love this web page, Rusty, all good stuff in it! Thank you!

  • Thanks so much for this insightful piece and so many others that offer deeper thought on the various bees and bee issues and bee products out there. I’ve hosted honeybees and mason bee houses in my own garden, and the mason bees that were brought in mostly failed to thrive. I’ve adopted unwanted bumblebee nests that poison-free extractors were able to relocate. And, I offer a garden filled with undisturbed habitat and resources not limited to our year-round flower sources. This means all sorts of bees have naturalized in my garden. Create the right space, and they will come. And, they will thrive. Keep up the good work!

  • We have been raising wild mason bees for about twenty years in the city. Most times it has been successful but we do always have mites. Initially we washed the cocoons in a weak bleach, rinsed, and dried before storing for for winter. Using a microscope some mites remained. We now are spraying the cocoons with an atomizer hairspray! The mites are trapped on the outside of the cocoon with no detrimental effect to the bees. Has anyone tried this?

  • This is a great post. We are working on with new native bee housing that is mindful of all these notes above. Also, we have made our bee houses with removable wooden inserts instead of cardboard tubes. We are trying to recreate habitat the best we can and only sell housing – never bees! Also, as you mentioned, see a variety of bees by using different sized holes and at different times in the year (mainly mason and leafcutter bees are our biggest renters but also certain wasps have been known to stop on by.) Your note about “put the housing out and they will come” is completely true – absolutely no need to buy and ship bees when the ones free near you are the best adapted for the environment in you area. We also tell individuals that having flowering plants blooming all season long is key and if they are native plants and wildflowers, even better! Also important is a nearby water source – if there are none nearby we suggest a cup plant or a small dish filled with stones and water. Anyways, thanks for this great post and for pointing out that restoring and maintaining natural habitat is always the most important factor! More flowers, less chemicals, and more “wild” landscapes! We say leave those fallen logs and dead trees – the bees and other insects/animals love them!

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