Yesterday I got my first sting of the season. That would not be remarkable except for one detail: the culprit was a mason bee. A mason bee! I have never before been stung by such a creature.
I’ve been keeping mason bees for about seven years, and during early spring the area around my patio is black with them. With all the carrying on they do, you wouldn’t even notice I have honey bees. Honey bees are always on a distant mission and they fly up and out. I only ever see them at the hive entrance. Mason bees, on the other hand, have an abbreviated foraging distance and do most of their work within several yards of their birthplace.
Not only are there lots of them in a small area, but they are quite chummy. By that, I mean they have no issues about being close to humans, very close, and they will often investigate your nose and ears as potential nesting sites. Talk about irritating.
Several species of mason bee live in my area and appear at different times of the year. The ones active now are the so-called orchard masons, Osmia lignaria. They appear about the same time as the orchard tree blossoms in the northern states and are quite content to pollinate them. But they are generalists and can also be seen on all types of flowers, including dandelions and flowering shrubs.
The sting of a mason bee
Yesterday I was on the patio cutting more paper straws to fill more cans. It seems I’ve been doing this every few days because as fast as I put up new ones, they get filled. I was measuring straws and cutting when I felt something on my wrist. I looked down to see a mason caught between my wristwatch and my sleeve. I pulled back my sleeve and she flew away.
For a while I wondered if she stung me. What I felt wasn’t really a sting but more like a little pinch. I couldn’t see anything, so I shrugged it off, thinking maybe I felt her feet while she was struggling to free herself.
But about five minutes later I noticed a typical sting mark: a raised white welt about a quarter-inch in diameter surrounded by a red patch about two inches across. So she had stung me! But seriously, it was something that would never pass for a sting in a honey bee’s bag of tricks.
I’ve been stung by alkali bees and alfalfa leafcutters, and they are less than 10% of a honey bee’s sting. But this sting was less than 10% of leafcutter sting. If I hadn’t actually seen the mark, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Attracting mason bees with paper straws
Over the years I’ve changed my nesting box set up. Now I use paper straws cut to fit the length of a metal can. I spray-paint the cans, although it’s not necessary, and simply fill them with straws of various diameters. When I started doing this seven years ago, about ten bees nested in my straws. Now it’s ridiculous how many live here, many hundreds.
In the autumn I put the cans of straws in my garden shed to keep them out of the rain. And then, in the spring, I put the straws in a hatching box. A hatching box is just a box with a tiny hole at the bottom. If you put the hatching box near a new set of straws, the bees will leave the hatching box and use the straws for their nests. By using new straws every year, you can reduce the number of parasites the bees have to contend with.
When the straws are full, your home will do
Even though I keep installing more straws, I have mason bees living in the drain holes of all our windows, nesting in the edges of the sliding patio door, tucked under the eaves and behind the fascia, squeezed in the siding, and folded into the outdoor chairs.
The orchard masons are just beginning to wind down for the year, but soon the green berry bees, Osmia aglaia, will start making their appearance. For now, they are still in the hatching boxes and waiting for warmer weather.
If you want to know where to find paper straws, everything I know about them is on a separate page called “Paper straws for native bee nests.”
Honey Bee Suite