Here’s how your existence will unfold if you’re born a female mason bee in the state of Washington:
You’ll grow from an egg into a larva, sealed inside a tubular chamber between two thin plugs of mud. The plugs keep your bee neighbors from taking your stuff.
Your chamber will be about one-quarter inch in diameter and maybe one-quarter-inch long. The sex of your tube neighbors, from the front to the back of the tube, will be male, male, male, female, female, female, give or take a few males and females.
After spending spring and early summer as a grub eating all the nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein) that was left in your chamber by your mother, you will metamorphize into an adult.
You can produce silk. You will fire up your silk-producing glands at this stage of your life and spin yourself into a cocoon so you can make it through winter. You then will enter a state of stasis for about eight months, emerging in early spring.
You will emerge, if you don’t have any human aid and if you aren’t killed by a parasite or fungus. You might have to chew through the mud plugs, and then crawl the full length of the tube until you emerge into the light.
Waiting for you outside your nest will be a slobbering mass of 2-week-old male mason bees. They will have already emerged from their tubes, and they await you filled with extreme carnal intent. Sometimes the males just can’t wait and will try to pull you prematurely from your chamber.
After mating, you’ll spend the next six weeks, the last six weeks of your life, laying eggs, collecting nectar and pollen, and creating nesting chambers for your own brood that will emerge the next spring. You’ll be as busy as a bee.
The mason bee females will then “perish,” as Mason County resident Mary Dessel puts it. The males are about four weeks perished by that point. Their only purpose was to have sex and then get out of the females’ way.
“If you watch the females provisioning their nests, it’s just amazing,” Dessel told me a few minutes before addressing a crowd of about 50 people last Saturday at the sixth and final edition of Through the Garden Gate 2023. The annual series of gardening workshops, at the Mason County Public Works building, is coordinated by WSU Mason County Master Gardeners.
Dessel, a Master Gardener, is the chairperson of the Garden Gate workshops and has a master’s degree in forestry with an emphasis in entomology from the University of Washington. And she is fascinated by mason bees. She’s played hostess to manufactured mason bee nests on her Mason County property for the past seven or eight years.
The need for humans to help mason bees reproduce is becoming critical, mostly because we’ve done our damndest to interfere with their ability to reproduce. Loss of habitat, predators and invasive species choking out available space for flowering plants and predators are harming pollinating bees. That’s not just a bee problem. That’s an us problem, too. We humans depend on pollination for creating one-third of all the food we consume.
“Both native bees and honeybees are currently declining due to a number of threats,” according to the Arboretum Foundation, a nonprofit Washington organization that dates to 1935. “Habitat loss is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide … invasives compete with the native species most wild bees rely on for pollen and nectar. Disease spread is another major issue facing bee populations.”
This is where humans can help.
“The more habitat that we create for our native bees by creating pollinator gardens, which includes putting out flowers, food resources from spring until late summer as well as having exposed soil for nesting and nesting material, and then avoiding insecticides on flowering plants, if you do those things and if many people do those things, we can have a huge impact,” Dessel said. “We’re creating habitat in pockets all over by doing that.”
March is the perfect month to get into the helping-mason-bees business. The males will be emerging soon, so the females will soon be carting around eggs for deposit. You can make or buy a nest, and you can seed the type of habitat that’s rich in the spring-blooming flowers that mason bee mothers need.
Here are some websites to get you going:
■ The importance of pollinators: http://www.xerces.org.
■ How to attract pollinators: http://www.tinyurl.com/39sxzt3x.
■ Lots of mason bee videos for beginners: http://www.crownbees.com.
■ How to clean cocoons: http://www.tinyurl.com/mctx3efh.