By now I'm sure anyone who's interested in gardening and raising a bit of their own food has heard about the plight of the honey bee. Since so much of our food supply depends on these little creatures as pollinators the fact that honey bees are disappearing at an alarming rate should have us all worried on many levels. But honey bees aren't the only bees who are good pollinators. In fact, honey bees aren't even native to this country. Some of the best pollinators don't live in hives or make honey. They're our own native mason bee, also known as the orchard bee. At first glance mason bees look like a small version of a honey bee, but they are very different from honey bees. Mason bees don't build hives, but instead look for holes in trees in which to raise their young. The female mason bee gathers pollen and places it inside a suitable hole. When she has enough she lays an egg, and then seals it off with a plug made of mud (hence the name "mason" bee). She then proceeds to gather more food, lay another egg, seal it off, and so-on until the hole is full. She then plugs the end with mud and starts all over again in a new hole. The eggs hatch and the young feed on the pollen she's provided for them during the summer, then pupate and over-winter in the holes. Come spring they emerge, males first, (who were deposited in the front sections of the hole) then later, the females. They mate, and then start the whole process over again.
Since mason bees don't make their own holes you can encourage them to nest close to your garden by providing suitable nesting holes for them. Many garden supply companies sell mason bee houses. You can also easily make one, and there are good instructions on how to do that here. You can also purchase mason bees, but you really shouldn't need to. As the saying goes, if you build it (or buy it), they will come. I put up my mason bee houses a little over a week ago, and the bees were using them immediately. (Actually they were using them before the houses were put up since I had them sitting on the porch!) You should put your bee house someplace with a bit of protection from rain and other nasty weather (if it doesn't have it's own roof built in), and if it can get morning sun, that's really optimal. You really don't need to worry about having the bees close to where you are. Unlike honey bees, mason bees aren't aggressive at all since they have no honey stores to protect. They can sting, but you pretty much have to squish one to get it to do so. As I was taking the pictures for this post the bees were actually hitting me since I was in their flight path to their nests, and I didn't get stung once. And they really are fascinating to watch as they go about their bee business.
So, if you're planning to grow anything that requires a bit of bee action, I'd really suggest making friends with some of our own orchard bees. They're some of the best friends a gardener can have!